Are we leaning on women to solve PR’s diversity problems?

By Sara Hawthorn,

Across PR the number of women-focused initiatives have steadily increased to drive much needed progress to support, mentor and encourage women towards senior roles.

However, new research published in the Harvard Business Review highlights a worrying trend that could impact overcoming different elements of gender disparity and lead to additional pressure placed on women to make workplaces more diverse.

Is the PR community at risk from similar results and what should we take from it to shape our diversity and inclusion work?

Top role visibility lessens progression concerns

At the start of March, the Harvard Business Review published a summary of five studies by PhD candidate, Oriane Georgeac, and Assistant Professor, Aneeta Rattan, currently in process to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (General). The most striking statement within the article was the following paragraph:

“when people perceive greater levels of women’s representation in top leadership, they overgeneralize the extent to which women have access to equal opportunities, which then decreases their concern with gender inequality in pay and other domains”.

Essentially, and somewhat ironically, the findings from the studies show that as we succeed in getting more women into top positions, we jeopardize parity in other ways. However, the most concerning result from the study was the shift in perception of equality recorded by the researchers; when participants believed that women’s representation in top roles had improved, their belief that women had better equality in general society overall also became stronger.

Worryingly, the results extended outside the workplace and into the home, sport and business. Multiple areas were negatively impacted when people believed women had successfully navigated their way to senior positions.

The ramifications of the findings and their potential ripples into the inclusion and support of other diverse and minority groups are significant and, with the PR industry taking such a strong lead in gender-related initiatives, are worthy of careful consideration and concern to avoid stifling the deep rooted changes needed within our agencies and in-house teams.

Women as the bellwether societal evolution

This is particularly relevant due to the way we measure society’s advancement around the treatment and support of women and girls. In her now famous speech in New Hampshire in 2016, Michelle Obama said: “that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls”.

But, perception and reality can be two very different things as PR practitioners know only too well, and the warning of this study is one we’d do well to heed. From the uncomfortable but necessary revelations of last year’s sexual harassment survey to the widening gender pay gap among junior level practitioners, our own story would indicate we have unwittingly stumbled into the same trap as the participants of the five studies.

This is perhaps, in part, due to PR’s inclination to silo D&I efforts, preferring to tackle each area the same way we tick items off a to-do list – clean separate tasks which have a beginning and end point and from which we can launch cleanly from one to the other.

But we must ask ourselves if we have become too preoccupied with gender and are we using it as the yardstick of improvement for all diverse groups, believing that we have come further than we have in terms of eliminating hiring and promotion biases, microaggressions and instigating a fundamental shift in culture towards inclusive agencies and teams?

Understanding intersectionality and its role in D&I

This closed-off, boxed in approach has led to a hierarchy of unspoken importance around diversity in PR, with gender sitting at the top of the tree and other areas such as race, sexuality, disability, class, occupying lower branches. However, I am a woman with a disability who grew up in a council flat in a single parent family, so where do I sit? Where does a gay woman of colour sit in this odd hierarchy we have constructed?

Intersectionality is a term that’s used a lot in feminist groups, sometimes effectively, sometimes incorrectly, but at its core, it’s something that applies to all of us. We are not just one thing; we are not affected by one single issue but face a range of challenges in society related to our backgrounds, our beliefs, our lifestyles, and cultures. Why, then, when it comes to D&I drives do we rarely, if at all, acknowledge this and neglect the value of intersectional thinking in shaping inclusive workforces?

The lack of intersectional approach feeds into the findings of the studies; as we know women securing senior roles doesn’t automatically mean they are supported and happy in those roles, yet when asked, their visibility in these positions was enough for participants to think sufficient equality was in place and to step down their efforts, causing further diversity and inclusion attempts to falter.

This leaves a worrying question: are we unconsciously beginning to rely on women to fix PR’s diversity and inclusion problem?

Preventing the uneven labour distribution of D&I

Last year I attended an academic conference focused on female entrepreneurship and one of the papers presented focused on the emotional labour shouldered by women – both at home and in the workplace. Women are far more likely to say yes to extra jobs in the office – doing staff birthday/leaving/retirement whip rounds, watering plants, taking on extra work when asked even if their own workloads are full.

This emotional labour is exhausting and gives others an opt out from stepping up; if the results of the leadership studies are accurate, the more we ‘lean in’, to quote Sheryl Sandberg, the more others will lean back, thinking their contributions are done. And that’s only related to gender.

Where, then, will the responsibility fall for pushing for further support and encouragement of other minority groups? Most likely on women. But research from 2016 presents us with another conflicting truth; women and people of colour who promote diversity are penalised for their actions by male counterparts and bosses.

Entitled Does Diversity-Valuing Behavior Result in Diminished Performance Ratings for Non-White and Female Leaders?” the article was published by the Academy of Management Journal, it surmised:

“Our set of studies suggest that it’s risky for low-status group members to help others like them. And this can lead to women and minorities choosing not to advocate for other women and minorities once they reach positions of power, as they don’t want to be perceived as incompetent, poor performers.”

When you look at the results of each study we are being simultaneously tasked with promoting diversity and inclusion and unfairly judged for it when we do. It is an unwinnable situation and one which will continue to exist if the PR sector doesn’t abandon its approach of carefully selecting which areas of diversity they wish to focus on and which they deem as not a priority.

Lessons for the future

The lesson here is not that gender-related diversity initiatives are pointless, far from it, but that they intersect with other groups and initiatives far more than we recognise because of the segregated way most of the PR industry has chosen to address D&I. We have and continue to limit ourselves from taking bigger strides forward by demanding a business case be justified, by failing to see how one person is affected by more than a single issue and by lazily thinking that the promotion of one group will naturally lead to the progress of another.

We are at a pivotal moment for the future of our industry, an intersection if you will, that has laid out the reality of our current path. The option to change course is open to us if we are prepared to recognise the opportunity.

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

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