One discussion theme emerging at PR Conversations during 2011 has been the role of women in public relations. Although PR has become a feminised occupation since the 1990s, many issues remain such as salary differentials, dominance of men in senior positions and 90% female intake on undergraduate degree courses, which we’ve debated in one post or another.
As this is the traditional time of year for looking backwards, I’m not talking about these current debates, but taking a journey to Mars – ironically a destination in the news as a future home for humankind. The life on Mars I’m talking about is a time when men dominated PR practice. I’m looking to land in the 1970s and 1980s with research for my PhD (which is investigating career strategies in public relations).
There were few women working in PR in the early part of the 20th century – or at least their stories are largely untold in the history texts. In the 1940s and 1950s, PR was a patriarchal industry where women were not expected to develop careers. Nevertheless, in Britain by 1987 women were estimated to account for 21% of members of the Institute of Public Relations, and in the US, the gender switch had occurred.
During the 1960s, literature claims the role of women in British PR was to promote fashion and similar female-oriented products and flatter clients. This gendered nature of emotional labour (remember Sex Sells) presents what Froëlich identifies as a “friendliness trap” for women’s career development in PR.
So I’m interested in exploring planet PR for female life on Mars – that is to examine the career experiences of women who entered the male dominated environment of British PR in the 1970s and 1980s.
There are lots of interesting challenges this rare species faced – such as role and vertical segregation (ie women were expected to work in junior roles – and stay there). There were many career inequities according to gender studies of PR. However, alongside the ‘glass ceiling’, I’m looking for the life support factors – the role of male mentors and societal and organizational drivers as well as constraints. Was this an era when second wave feminism had an impact and were women in PR affected by critical incidents, such as the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 and the election of Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979?
Early in 2012, I’m planning to conduct oral history interviews to obtain rich descriptive accounts of women’s careers in an era when male domination was being challenged. I’m not just interested in the stories of women of renown, but those who may not have followed a traditional hierarchical career path. If you were a Venus in this strange land of Mars at the time, then please leave a comment and I’d love to talk with you further. I’m also going to talk with some men, so if you were a Martian then (or now), please share your perspective too.
The aim of my study is not only to record Life on Mars in British public relations during the 1970s and 1980s, but to determine the role of women working in PR as change agents in opening up career opportunities for younger female practitioners. If you feel that such women had an impact on your career decisions – again please join the conversation.