Women are successful in public relations – UK data shows a 64:36 female:male gender split in an industry worth £7.5bn. In particular, young women are attracted to the occupation – dominating specialist degree courses (by 4:1 in my experience) and reflecting the largest demographic group in practice.
The secret of their success is often stated as strong communication and relationship building skills – however Romy Frölich identifies this as a “friendliness trap” which stereotypes women and impacts on their career progression.
Women are aware of this danger – Frölich’s research in Germany found female practitioners distancing themselves from the “PR bunny” or “PR slut” image. However, graduate student Amanda Wadlow argues women in PR continue to adopt a personality to match the image.
Liz Yeomans has been looking at gender identity in PR by exploring the experience of those working in agencies when managing professional relationships. She found PR could be considered as involving “emotional labour” whereby feminine traits are exploited in managing relationships with colleagues, clients and the media. In particular, a culture that focuses on “making the client happy” whilst also maintaining friendly relationships with journalists necessitates practitioners should enact particular emotions, or “prescriptive performances”.
This need to fake emotions involves a schizophrenic approach, whereby the friendly persona needs to be matched to an image of being a “trusted professional consultant”. So whilst using their sex to satisfy the needs of clients and journalists, PR practitioners seek not to be seen as “fluffy” themselves.
Likewise, in considering the issue of online relationship building, Bridgen sees the blurring of the professional and personal requiring adoption of different personas that flexibly combine the corporate image and “brand me”. She acknowledges PR practitioners are using emotions in complex ways which can be emotionally satisfying, but also seen as exploitative when not valued by management. The issue of the “commoditisation of the self” within PR work is raised although the gender impact of work impacting on personal life is not explored in the context of existing challenges for women’s career development.
Seniority and authority are seen to be impacted by reflecting feminine characteristics in Yeomans’ work, resulting in practitioner frustration and anger. Nevertheless, a liberal feminist perspective would appear to be adopted in believing individual performance will be the important factor in their own career success.
However, maybe a more radical approach is required to change the status quo – as Wrigley wrote in 2002:
Radical feminist perspectives question whether things will ever change until women acknowledge that the structure needs to be dismantled; otherwise, women are fooling themselves into believing things will get better for them in the workplace.
The status quo includes gender salary differentials in PR (first identified by Dozier and Broom in 1979) which continue to be evident in contemporary data. Many of the same issues remain regarding feminization of PR with debate about a glass ceiling or velvet ghetto joined by observations that women are making a “disappearing act” en route to higher levels of management.
The contrary nature of PR is evident from the initial entry point into PR. Bowen argues young women are attracted to the occupation by its glamorous image, whilst Andsager et al found preference for female-oriented industries among female PR students, despite believing these were less likely to pay well. Gender was felt to play a key role in career decisions, despite the professional agenda of most PR degree courses.
What we seem to have created is an occupation which attracts young women who feel their social skills offer them an exciting career – but who then opt out from seeking management roles.
Perhaps they find their “friendliness” is not conducive to promotion, or they experience difficulties in balancing PR’s culture of long-working hours with family life (which could be worsened if use of social media out of hours becomes an expectation of the job), or maybe they have chosen a career path in a female-oriented industry where they face intensive competition for few management positions.
On the other hand, career theory suggests a changing world of work which is less dependent on traditional ladders and technician-management hierarchies for status, reward or success. Ideas such as boundaryless, protean and entrepreneurial careers would seem well suited to both public relations and the more flexible requirements of women in their working lives. Likewise, third-wave feminism seems not to have reached within public relations academia or practice, where the contradictions, conflict and irrationality of the occupation could be examined, challenged and embraced.
If a radical approach is to be undertaken that challenges the existing structure of public relations, what is required? Here are a few suggestions:
- We need to challenge the reputation of PR as a feminine occupation that suits particular perspectives of female characteristics (relationship building and friendliness);
- There needs to be less acceptance of the use of sexuality in PR – specifically in relation to “keeping clients happy” and flirting with journalists when seeking media coverage;
- The hierarchical model of work in PR as technician vs managerial needs to be dismantled to create new models of work and success (that better accommodate the needs of all practitioners in balancing home and work lives);
- I’d like to see career advice for young practitioners be more gender-neutral and include understanding of new opportunities for managing entrepreneurial and protean careers.
- Both academia and practice should reflect on how relationship management goes beyond the personality model to consider psychology, power, ethics, etc and include such understanding in models of practice.
- Finally, we need to recognise that “friend” is a nuanced concept (see Judy Gombita’s recent guest post) where there are layers of relationships that build over time, on a foundation of trust. Like sex, we need to value relationships in PR as neither faked nor sold cheap.