A journey to Mars: how planet PR used to be

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.

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8 Replies to “A journey to Mars: how planet PR used to be

  1. Heather,

    Your post raised a wry smile or two from me and brought back many, many ‘Venus and Mars’ memories from the 80s and 90s in the UK. I’ll share one here as I think it illustrates how attitudes have changed.

    In my twenties I was appointed, controversially at the time, by a forward-thinking – male – CEO to lead PR for the organisation. All previous incumbents had been male and, looking at their photographs lining the wall, they accessorised their authority with magnificent moustaches. Being female, under 30 and happily (from my perspective) moustache-less, the appointment caused something of a furore among the ‘gentlemen’s club’ that had held sway for decades. Fortunately the CEO was confident in his choice and remained a staunch champion of change and progress until his retirement.

    During the recruitment process for the new team I was putting together, I asked one candidate how he wished to develop his career in public relations and where he saw himself in five years time. His reply? “Sitting where you are my dear and much sooner than five years time – after all, I do think a man in this job would be preferable, don’t you?’.

    Could you imagine such a reply in today’s world?

    1. Thank you Catherine – and I may well impose on you for further reflections at some point if you didn’t mind. It is interesting for me having started my career in PR at the end of the 1980s albeit in the masculine motor industry. There were several women older than me so I certainly wasn’t a pioneer by any means, but I’d forgotten experiences like you mention here. I got my first PR job because I was female but my boss was impressed that I also knew something about the motor industry (I’d been a research analyst previously). I was also advised by a male colleague very early on that I should never pour the coffee in meetings or I’d be judged as his assistant. I moved up to Yorkshire in the early 1990s and worked for a very traditional CEO who had to be won over that a ‘girl’ was right as his PR manager as he’d wanted to employ a local motoring journalist in my place. I grew up in a family where I was encouraged to achieve and never played the ’emotional labour’ card (as far as I know!). But like you (and I suspect many others), I was fortunate to find supportive males (even if they would be considered highly chauvenistic today) who valued brain over beauty…

  2. To prove your point, when I joined my first PR consultancy at the end of the 1980s, there were just two fee-earning females out of a team of 20 consultants. (We still had secretaries/administrators, and they were all female).

    So, ours was a male dominated world. The explanation may have been that this was a technology sector specialist, in the days before the rise of consumer technology.

    I’m still in contact with one of those two pioneering tech PR women if that helps.

    1. Richard – thanks for the context and yes, I’d love to be put in touch with your two pioneering tech PR women. Obviously I have contacts also within the motor industry of that time and so the IT industry ought to reflect some commonalities (or maybe not) and both may well contrast with the more feminine industries where women were more normally found.

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