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Further reflections on improving equality in professional life

I recently published a series of comments from women in my network about how we can better move towards parity between the sexes in public relations.

It follows a crowdsourced #PRstack ebook project on third-party public relations tools. Only a quarter of the contributions are from women. This is despite me personally asking female friends, colleagues, and friends of friends, to contribute.

It reflects the difference between men and women participating at industry events, blogging, and commenting in the media. But what can we do about it?

This post is a collection of longer reflective pieces that tackle the issue and call for community, confidence, mentors and a commitment to gender parity in all areas of professional life.

Thanks to the University of Louisville’s Prof. Karen Freberg, PR Conversations editor Judy Gombita, and Immediate Future founder and CEO Katy Howell.

karenCommunities of collaboration break conditioning – Karen Freberg

Karen Freberg (@kfreberg), a public relations educator from the University of Louisville has a straightforward call to action. She believes that we need strong mentors to challenge traditional norms and lead by example.

The main issue at play here is the perceptions of what public professionals do and can participate in, confidence in pursuing opportunities with the mindset that some may work and others will not, and having a strong and supportive mentor community to help you evolve as a professional.

It comes down to education and pursuit of the template public relations professional. I’ve seen this happen a lot with students coming out at various public relations course where they have been told to act, write, and think a certain way.

I’ve even got this message a lot as both a student and future public relations professor. It’s scary to go against the norm, but it does pay off, and I am not sure we are all getting that message at times. It sometimes all comes down to confidence or having someone say.

The other best advice I was given was related to taking initiative in your work – talking to someone or networking with a fellow professional – or reaching out and submitting for a possible collaboration project.

I remember being intimidated at first and thinking about all of the different results that could happen to me, when a colleague said, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” and I mentioned “Well, they won’t respond to my email, I won’t get the opportunity to collaborate on this project.”

And then this professional said challenged me to think about what the best thing was that could happen. This was a turning point for me. It’s a story that I share with colleagues and students who want advice on what they should do with some opportunities they get or possibly want to pursue.

Life is too short to wait for opportunities, you have to seize them with both hands and take the initiative to do so. This is what my parents taught me and really stressed about having a good work ethic and investing in your future a little bit each day.

Related back to public relations, we are experiencing a lot of noise with all of these social media platforms, but also the rise of public relations professionals, so we can’t wait to get these opportunities but take advantage of them. We need to get this message out more both in and outside the classroom in the field.

I have tried to implement all of these points in my classes for my students – I try to lead by example and show them that I am doing exactly the same thing and show them what has worked and what hasn’t.

So, I think in order to move forward with this – I think we need to have strong mentors to help guide us. I’ve been very fortunate to have several great mentors who have encouraged me to follow my passions and interests in the field.

jgombitaCognizant realities for Mars to champion Venus – Judy Gombita

Starting from anything less than parity between the sexes is unacceptable if you want to reflect society says the PR Conversations’ Judy Gombita (@jgombita).

Women are from Venus and men are from Mars – a handy analogy to explore why attitudes differ in participating in various endeavours, including point of view and energies expended, or not.

However, given that women have little problem organizing and participating with other females regarding events, publications and projects, perhaps the superior focus is on who defines the journey on Earth, including paths taken and the lead or team roles of participants.

As an example, regarding the invitation to participate in a crowdsourced project about the use of third-party tools in modern public relations practice – that attracted the input of only four women out of 17 participants – consider whether:

  1.  The objective didn’t interest as many women as men (i.e., they didn’t care overly much); or
  2. From the beginning, the branding was as a Stephen Waddington project and leadership role, including the editing lens of what made the final cut.

Apply this process to the majority of conferences: besides ensuring speaker parity in gender (and other diversity), does the focus of events include the needs and wants of potential female registrants, in addition to articulated male objectives?

I’ve never been a shrinking violet, so I can’t speak to apprehensions or conflicts regarding expectations other women might possess. However, I do have a finely attuned spidey sense when I sense paternalism or forms of male placation, when daring to question why the status quo of numbers does not move in significant ways.

An example: a conference stacked with male keynote speakers or hosts with a token panel or two, either outsized with female participants (often the same ones who get asked to many conferences) or where one woman has been invited to moderate all-male panellists.

If men really want worldview balance, commit fully to objectives of real parity. Make use of data and measurement in various aspects of employment, volunteer and project-based life.

Monitor and measure the gender parity, internally and externally – using a physical or online whiteboard – not just in terms of speakers (conference and media) and contributors (ebooks), but also related to female-centric topics or perspectives versus the typical male mindsets.

That’s what CBC Radio did – a mindfulness by the public broadcaster to balance research and on-air staffing, to reflect the needs and opinions of both genders in the populace. (As reported by Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News and Centres, at the CJF event, Ceiling, Cracked? News Women in Charge.)

Another success story is this year’s Hot Docs festival, for which Charlotte Cook, director of programming, proudly reported that for the first time 40 per cent of the scheduled films are directed by women.

katyConfidence – Katy Howell

Katy Howell (@katyhowell), founder and CEO of Immediate Future, shares a personal story of an attempt to host an all women panel. She calls for collaboration and mentoring.

Having always asked conference organisers to include more women when I am asked to speak I was given an opportunity to put together a panel for a CIPR event.

I decided to make it an all-female panel and asked 18 senior women from marketing and communications to participate. Everyone single one declined.

The excuses, candidly, were all pretty dire. And nearly all pointed me at a male counterpart or even juniors.

It got me thinking as to why this was the case. I gathered women for a small networking event and began to ask pointed questions.

The answer it seems is a matter of confidence. The Internet and technology industry is a harsh place. Say something wrong, fumble your lines or just find yourself unable to answer a questions and a legacy of blogs, tweets and posts will let the world know of your mistakes.

Women, especially slightly older and more senior women do not want to put themselves at risk. They are just too scared.

I know how scary this is having had tweets commenting on my appearance at a speaking event, for instance. It is hard to be brave in an industry that is dominated by men and is alpha and brutal in its communications.

It’s a vicious circle. With so few that are prepared to be brave, there are no role models. And with no role models, we encourage few women to join in.

I spend time coaching other women, helping them build confidence and be brave. I also am rather noisy about insisting conference organisers ask more women.

But it is more than just being invited to speak. I have found myself and other women often side-lined on panels, talked over or interrupted, not a pleasant experience.

Organisers need to change the way events are managed. Make them less adversarial and create a safe environment to collaborate and discuss.

The same often applies to blogging or other forms of self-publicity. It is tough to push yourself.

Maybe more support and training for women would help, but ultimately we need to focus on this issue and some serious support from our own industry.

We should consider a different approach; an approach that allows for all types of collaboration.

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Stephen Waddington

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

42 Comments

  1. Personally, I blame the mothers. Being told its “polite” to offer someone else a piece of bread so you can be “allowed” to take one yourself. it’s #everydaysexism, and we women are the ones who reinforce that. Maybe I missed that lesson, but I spend a lot of time encouraging, coaching, pushing, bribing and sometimes just shoving them onto the stage, saying “Get over it!”

    great curation of thoughtful pieces.

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