The public relations industry is dominated by women. In 1970, according to Ragan’s PR Daily, women comprised only 27 per cent of the US public relations workforce. Today, close to three-quarters of the members of the Public Relations Society of America are female; in the UK, about 64 per cent of those employed in PR are female.
Also, women in the US with bachelor’s degrees in journalism or mass communication disproportionately specialise in advertising and PR, which have more opportunities for full-time employment than other parts of the industry.
But unlike many fields where women dominate at entry level and in the junior ranks but are noticeably absent at the managerial and principal levels, in PR they are increasingly seen in managerial roles.
According to the most recent data from the PRSA national committee on work, life and gender, women and men are enacting the role of manager at the same rate for the first time since these figures were first collected in 1979. (“Enacting” the role means that respondents said they performed activities that researchers classify as carried out by a “manager”, as opposed to a “technician” or a “specialist” – both of which are more junior-level jobs.)
Rosanna Fiske, chief executive and chairwoman of the PRSA, says: “We have seen a rising number of women leaders at the agency level, and an increasing number become independent practitioners who are setting up their own shops. But we have not seen this happen at the corporate level.
“So, yes, we are seeing changes, and yes, we have seen a number of women rise to the top. But I wish there were more of them.”
Fiske believes more women gravitate to the field because PR jobs require skills that tend to come by women naturally, such as empathy, listening and multitasking.
“PR is about communication, and women are born communicators,” she says. “PR is also about relationship building, and there is a lot of research in cultural anthropology that shows that this is a strength of women.”
Another reason women are drawn to PR careers is that they are often more conducive to the balance of work and family. “There’s a lot more flexibility in this industry,” says Fiske. “It’s not an eight-to-five job where you have to be chained to a desk.”
In spite of these advances, women still face double standards. Consider a recent conversation I had with Christine Deussen, president of Deussen Global Communications, a small PR shop based in New York that specialises in wine, spirits and hospitality. A few months ago, she received a thank-you note from one of her top European clients, a man.
“He opened with something like, ‘When I was first assigned my Deussen team, I was worried because it was all women. I didn’t know if they were up to the job.’ He went on to say thank you, and by the end, it was such a beautiful note,” says Deussen. “But I do think perceptions are funny. I was surprised that even today someone might see an all-female team as lightweight.”
She says she had always wanted to start a company, but admits perhaps she was “a little blind” to the barriers that women face in business.
“I’m 42. I grew up in an age where little girls and boys were treated equally,” she says. “We had Title IX requirements [that disallow gender discrimination in the US] for sports. My mother was an entrepreneur. I went to Barnard [the women’s college in New York]. I always thought, if I wanted to start a business, of course I could do that. I went into it a little blind, but in this case I think ignorance is bliss.”