Public relations: the sex issue

Public relations: the sex issue

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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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