Public relations: the sex issue

Why is there a significant gender imbalance in public relations? It’s a question that was posed recently by US students visiting Ketchum in London.

My view is simply that women are better at navigating relationships. Ketchum’s European CEO David Gallagher wasn’t convinced. He said that the issue was more complex and likely to be rooted in macro social and economic issues.

I sought out the opinion of members of the CIPR LinkedIn Group. Like most vibrant LinkedIn groups it can get noisy when confronted with a tricky issue.

However, three weeks, 5,000 words and more than 30 comments later, I’m not sure we’ve reached a conclusion, but it has been a fascinating debate which I’m going to try and summarise in a blog post. If you’ve time I’d urge you to review the entire discussion on LinkedIn.

Broader parity in marketing
Felicity Bubb, a communications consultant, said that it’s misleading to focus on gender in public relations in isolation from other marketing functions. She said that if the profession is considered alongside other marketing disciplines, the gender imbalance is not significant.

Liam Grady, PR manager & social media, Talk to Media, made a similar point. He claims that the opposite situation exists in the design industry.

“The business I work for now has two male designers and no female [designers]. [My previous agency] had five men versus two women. A colleague made the point that of the six agencies he has worked in there have only been four women to 200 men,” said Grady.

Boys: late PR developers but rise to top
Public relations practitioner and education Heather Yaxley made the point that women tend to seek out public relations at university whereas men join the profession later in their careers.

“At least three-quarters of public relations undergraduates are female; there are lots of young women entering [the profession] whereas there is a tendency for men to enter public relations as managers from journalism and other corporate backgrounds,” said Yaxley.

Sara Render, chief executive, Kinross & Render, suggested that traditionally public relations can be a ‘geisha’ business when dealing with certain types of journalist who can treat practitioners badly.

“Women tend to have been brought up in ways that encourage more accommodating and even tempered behaviour. Hopefully times are changing […] but I rather doubt it,” said Render.

The gender imbalance switches as you rise in seniority in a public relations firm or communications team. Men tend to dominate senior positions but the public relations profession is generally considered a good career for someone wanting to take time out to have a family.

Career breaks
“Woman can drop in and out without her employment skills losing any currency, and get back in the saddle quickly, or even deliver good work part-time and still enjoy a decent income as well as mental stimulation. So it’s an attractive option for a career choice,” said Peter Smith, practice leader, The Marketing Doctors.

Eva Oliver, communication officer, CfBT argues against this point. “There’s a lot happening in […] social media that impact public relations. A lot can change in a year,” she said.

Oliver isn’t alone. Carys Wynn-Mellor an energy communication specialist and director of the European Agency for Energy Security picked up the discussion.

“I think it’s exceptionally difficult to pick up a career where I left off. New media is constantly evolving and keeping hold of up to date media contacts can be a task in itself in such a competitive market – despite having over ten years valuable experience,” said Wynn-Mellor.

She believes this is the reason that the freelance market is so buoyant.

“I think quite a few women perhaps look at giving up many employee benefits in order to go freelance to keep their career ticking over while having a family – the public relations industry at least lends itself reasonably well to this,” said Wynn-Mellor.

Six Sigma Public Relations’ Andy M Turner said that gender was part of a broader issue in the industry.

Focusing on sex isn’t helpful
“There’s a wider, and more worrying diversity imbalance in terms of race, age, socio-economic background, etc. Large corporates […] are taking positive diversity steps,” said Turner.

Nick Dobbs disagreed. He said that job selection should be made on the basis of the best person a role.

“Positive discrimination leads to unintended consequences. In a creative professional can lead to a bias towards mediocrity rather than the promotion of talent,” he said.

Frances Knox made a similar point. “Let’s treat people as individuals. The workplace is changing and flexible or agile working doesn’t mean the slow track,” she says.

So, what have we learnt?

I’m not sure that we’ve advanced the discussion, but there are two firm conclusions: firstly public relations and sex is complicated, and secondly, LinkedIn groups are great places for an industry discussion.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Fascinated to read this article. As someone coming to the end of my maternity leave, I have to disagree with the notion that choosing to take time out for a family means you cannot keep up to date. Yes a year is a long time if you take extended leave, but it’s also an opportunity to discover new talents, reflect and learn.

    Quite apart from all the new skills you learn as a first-time parent, I’ve enjoyed using my maternity leave to continuously develop my thinking and actively participate in discussions, debates, webinars and events.

    I’ve contributed to two books, joined a CIPR committee, gone through Continuing Professional Development (CPD), spoken at Social Media Week and conferences, blogged, volunteered as social media adviser for the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) and been part of the guru group for Engage for Success. Plus of course my proudest achievement, raising my daughter.

    It’s been a wonderful experience and I know it has enriched my CV. Just because you choose to be on maternity leave doesn’t mean you have to ‘leave’ – you can still be present and active in ways you always have been and more. Social media facilitates that well, particularly with replays of webinars, when routines (and teething!) don’t allow you to attend in real-time.

    My point is this – maternity leave and career development can go together if you would like them to. You can read more about my year here in a guest blog: http://thehrjuggler.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/day-18-moving-on-up/.

    If you are a mum working in media, marketing or comms, I’ve discovered a fab group of smart cookies – M3 (Marketing Media Mums): http://marketingmediamums.com/about-m3-marketing-media-mums/. Thanks for sharing Wadds, is a fascinating topic.


  2. It’s incredibly frustrating that men tend to hold the top positions in what is actually a female dominated industry. The reasons seem to be the same as other sectors- womens’ skills are under valued, they are unnecessarily held back by maternity leave and they are less likely to put themselves forward for comment and opportunities than their male counterparts (you only have to read PR Week to see the imbalance in who is quoted!) As a profession, we are terrible at doing our own PR. The sector’s talented women need to stand up and be counted as thought leaders who can lead the industry into the future. We must practice what we preach to our clients and get our own PR and personal branding right!

  3. PS. Rachel’s comment above is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. We should be using her as a case study and role model for young female practitioners!

  4. This is exactly what I am writing my dissertation on. It’s becoming a hot issue. Interesting insight!

  5. In 2005 I replicated a 1995 study by Dozier & Broom in which they looked at the evolution of the manager role in PR practice. The two posited that PR professionals carry out one of two roles, that of either manager (read director level or above / strategist) or technician (the implementer or ‘doer’) and hypothesized that practitioners can only participate in organisational decision making where manager status is achieved. I think generally it’s fair to say the latter is true.

    At the time, the results of my study echoed many findings to date, ie that women are for many reasons, including a variety of factors outside their control, most often found (and regularly trapped) in the technician role, therefore arguably limiting their influence at the board table.

    My instinct tells me that the situation remains the same today and the latest salary scales are a reminder that there are big discrepancies in terms of pay if not opp’s. I’d love to replicate the study to discover the reality and maybe that’s what I should do as part of my chartered practitioner submission.

    In terms of opp’s, if what Wadds says is true and women are better at negotiating relationships, social offers our biggest chance to break through yet but it’s whether or not we grasp the nettle with both hands… I can’t see it happening to be honest.

    What I would say from the comments above is that I think Peter Smith is out of touch (sorry Peter – and sorry Rachel, as I know you disagree plus I concur with Helen that you are a great role model). Having set up a business just 3.5 years ago and had two children in that time, I have had to work very hard to stay at the forefront of the industry so understand the challenges very well. PR is not the type of industry you can dip in and out of and unlike what people say, I personally don’t find it that family-friendly. That’s a big myth and one I’d personally like to dispel.

  6. Stephen, I don’t want people to get the impression from your post that I favour positive discrimination. I certainly don’t; meritocracy is the way to go. Women need encouragement and help in a whole range of ways to enable them to climb the career ladder as easily as men.

    But while the gender issue is of obvious concern and well worth our attention, it’s only a tiny part of the diversity debate. Employers who fail to see that will miss the real opportunities open to them from having a workforce that is representative of the constituencies they serve.

    • As with any employer – to create equal workplaces it’s about ensuring absolute meritocracy. This involves challenging unconscious bias in recruitment and pay processes, and being transparent in pay…That data will show if there are gender disparities.

      @andymturner is absolutely right to flag all strands of diversity – and the lack of in PR / Comms / Media. And right to reiterate in the comment that this is about positive action, NOT discrimination. If recruitment is by the same small pool or through the same small networks, and is wholly dependent on free / very low paid internships, then it’s ignoring a wealth of great talent. That’s not positive discrimination, that’s making sure you’re not missing out on talent.

      On the gender / working mums: as with most industries, if you take a career break you risk missing out on developments. All employers, who don’t want to lose talent (whom they’ve likely invested in) should think about maternity / parental return policies / buddy schemes, etc. And, flexible working (which shouldn’t and doesn’t read as part-time).

      Wadds – great to see this issue being discussed. Have made suggestion on twitter for the next blog topic :-)

  7. Just a quick glance at the PR Week Power Book demonstrates the gender inequality at the top end of the profession. As Andy mentions, it also illustrates other diversity issues include the lack of ethnic minorities and disabilities represented in the industry at all, let alone at the upper echelons.

    I am currently recruiting graduates four times a year into the Taylor Bennett Foundation programme. Interestingly, the gender mix of applications very much depends on the sponsor of the programme. For beauty/fashion PR programmes we have a much higher percentage of female applicants – over 90% – compared to a corporate PR programme which is more of a 50/50 split. The programmes themselves are almost identical – it is just the sponsor PR agency that differs – the skills and experience they are taught and gain are the same.

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