It is nearly 25 years since the publication of Cline’s ‘Velvet Ghetto’ study of women in public relations which responded to the increasing feminisation of the occupation. Undeniably today, the field is one dominated by women – indeed, based on my UK experience, 90% of the students on undergraduate PR degree courses and studying for professional qualifications are female.
Both professional bodies here have women in senior positions: Sally Costerton (chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton EMEA) is president of the PRCA whilst Jane Wilson is CEO for the CIPR. Not quite a clean sweep at the top though as the elected president of CIPR is Paul Mylrea with the chief exec for PRCA being Francis Ingham.
Nevertheless, surely this is a sign of progress with the potential for any young woman entering PR being an opportunity to work at the highest level in either consultancy or in-house positions. The concept of a glass ceiling is consigned to history, pay levels are comparable and senior executives are as comfortable taking strategic advice from a woman as a man – n’est pas?
Looking at feminist scholarship and around the practice of public relations, there is evidence of positive movement – albeit in a two-steps forward, one-step back manner. Women are no longer confined to primarily tactical roles, but in turn, at least educationally, the occupation is perceived as one more appropriate for young women as a career starting point. From the pages of PR Week, job advertisements and anecdotally, it is evident that men still leapfrog into senior positions from their previous jobs in journalism or elsewhere in an organisation’s management hierarchy.
In some areas of PR (at least in the UK), there appears to be a clear gender divide. In the publicity arena, men are typified as able to control the media on behalf of their high profile clients, whilst women are party-organisers. In politics, former male journalists joust with the national media correspondents, whilst women fulfil many of the civil servant supporting roles. In the motor industry, women predominate in event-focused positions, with former specialist journalists talk technical matters with their male counterparts remaining on the media side of the fence. Yet, in the beauty industry, it’s all Devil Wears Prada or Sex in the City with tough women facing off in the media and PR positions. The major consultancies still seem to be led predominantly by men, with their high profile senior appointments dominated by the head-hunted former high profile journalist. One can only presume however, that the “real work” is undertaken by the armies of women making up the account exec to account director levels.
Does this matter? Doesn’t PR offer a good career option for women – enabling them to combine work, family and other commitments with their innate ‘soft’ skills in many areas of public relations? Aren’t women able to climb to the top (using the stereotypical organisationally-rooted notion of a career path) without encountering sexism as Costerton claims? I know of several women in senior motor industry PR positions – and many waiting to follow them into the driving seat of major automotive brands (once the men currently holding those posts retire or otherwise move on!) Interestingly, the women often seem to have a bigger perspective on what public relations can achieve for their organisations, beyond gaining new model launch coverage in the motoring magazines.
Likewise, the experienced PR women entering the classroom to gain professional qualifications are doing so to boost their careers using education and knowledge as their weapon of choice. Those graduating from the best PR degree courses combine a strategic understanding with solid practical skills – and ambitions for a career that are not constrained to “pink and fluffy” jobs.
PR does offer a women’s world – but it is one as complicated as any other career field, and one where young male PR graduates will also face encroachment as they forge their own path – similarly seeking to gain some life-work balance.
Yes, there are specific issues that women face – and the labelling of both their role and the occupation itself needs to be challenged from liberal, radical and third wave feminist perspectives. There are individual and institutional barriers to be dismantled as well as stereotypes to be overcome in many areas of PR. But alongside the problematization of gender, there needs to be pragmatism and even a celebration of public relations. This is a multi-faceted, dynamic field in which to carve a career – with opportunities to work as a skilled artisan, strategic counsellor, brand ambassador, expert crisis manager, and in many other nuanced roles across a myriad of organizational fields; in-house, within a consultancy or as an entrepreneur.
I believe that PR offers a modern Protean career choice – that is conceptually boundaryless, where our portfolio of skills, competencies, experiences and knowledge enable us to create an individual tapestry of employment (and self-employment). Whether that tapestry is worked in velvet thread or riveted in chainmail, the choice is ours.