Just when you think an issue is sorted, done, dusted and settled – up it comes again. The issue on my mind today is gender and its impact on public relations. I have attended three different events in roughly as many weeks and at each one, the issue of ‘feminisation of the public relations profession’ has taken centre stage.
At one educational establishment, the discussion revolved around getting more ‘men’ on the course, with the inference being that the course credibility would suffer if this didn’t happen. At another event for senior practitioners, the research presented suggested that the increasing percentage of women practitioners meant that the profession’s standing was undermined; also that top level operators were hard to come by because women were being left at the bottom of the talent pool. Finally, at a tech event, the suggestion was that ‘women didn’t do technical’, so as online engagement progressed, so too the numbers of women in public relations would decrease, therefore it would be alright in the end. Three events full of stereotyping, misinformation and misogyny led me, rather shamefully, towards invective and splutter on my journey home from the last one, almost to the point where all I could articulate was an angry yell (much to the surprise of my fellow ferry passengers).
We all know that this question has been researched exhaustively, books have been written on the subject by Larissa Grunig and others and more information is added, well, pretty much daily. But given the amount of research that highlights the issue, I can find precious little evidence of recent action to change the well researched attitudes that appear to prevail.
Obviously it is not an attitude confined to the public relations profession. I have heard similar conversations among accountants, doctors and lawyers concerning current gender balance within their professions. A recent report on Gender in Agriculture, a collaboration between the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Bank detailed 15 years worth of empirical evidence concerning the impact of gender in agriculture.
In its conclusions it states:
“Perhaps the broadest lesson to be drawn from the accounts given in the Sourcebook relates to the extent to which we can rely on markets to improve the status of women and capitalize on their potential as producers. It is important to dispel any notion that markets alone will naturally generate social change that benefits women, or that the risks and opportunities present within markets are in any way gender neutral. Rather, the ability of rural women to participate in markets as rational economic actors is very often negotiated within a context of cultural norms and expectations. In that context social convention and propriety may impinge heavily in a woman’s freedom to explore the economic opportunities that emerge as markets expand and change.”
A conclusion that could be validly drawn across more areas of activity than agriculture perhaps? Is it not time we changed the conventions and allowed women practitioners more freedom to explore? Pay rates in public relations vary considerably between men and women with huge gaps in some countries. As a job, it is less accommodating than most in terms of work/life balance and has tried to fit itself to Victorian business models. Expressions like ‘PR Poppet’, ‘Fluffy Bunnies’ and ‘PR Bunnies’ are rife, and these, along with other descriptors which I am not going to post here, undermine and denigrate both the profession and women.
So why do we allow people to get away with it? Why is there a pay gap? Why are there less opportunities at the ‘top end’ for female practitioners, while those in the middle and starting out have less reward? This is not a local phenomenon. I recall several comments from the floor at this year’s World PR festival, numerous discussions on the issue among delegates (from all continents) during breaks and there is the mountain of available research and observation. I wonder if the recent discussions in Milan on institutionalisation (of which I hope we hear more soon) held any mention of the issue and if so, what was said?
The role of the public relations practitioner is a very powerful one, which is why I believe the issues of institutionalisation and feminisation are such thorny ones, and why both will ultimately create the future regard for the work we do. There has long been a resistance in many cultures – particularly business cultures – towards women holding powerful roles at all levels of society. This resistance is often manifested, replicated and enforced by the choice of language and descriptors used to influence and ‘inform’ others – just look at how Sarah Palin was dubbed ‘Caribou Barbie’ within hours of her first speech as vice-presidential candidate. Interesting still, is how – and why – women allow such descriptors to ride without intercepting and altering the skewed perception that such language brings. And it isn’t just women either – look at the descriptors used for our profession: go on, you fill in the blanks. I know you will be able to think of some. Why do practitioners collude with a shy grin when introduced as ‘spin doctors’ or produce a wry smile when described as being ‘from the dark side’? The old school-yard rhyme goes “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you”. That might be true – but they sure can undermine your credibility.
So given our roles, our abilities and the vast range of tools at our disposal should we not, as a profession and for our profession be individually and collectively active in changing such attitudes and language for the benefit of all practitioners as well as the people we serve?