Italian women in PR: challenges and opportunities

Op-Ed by Enrica Orecchia

Italian women in PR: challenges and opportunities

The gender-balance question in our PR discipline continues to be a topic of interest, as evidenced by a recent poll and discussion in LinkedIn’s Public Relations Professionals Group, “Why are there more women than men in PR?” That debate inspired me to write my own blog post. And because I translated into Italian some blog post comments by Heather Yaxley and Judy Gombita, I was invited to detail for readers of PR Conversations what it is like to be a woman working in public relations in Italy. I was intrigued at the idea of covering common ground and a particular set of traits found in Italian women working in the field today, so I accepted. And I began to ponder: Are there any meaningful differences from women working in other areas? And what about from men working in the similar positions?

Recent (Italian) studies on the subject

From 2010 research by Ferpi (the Italian public relations association), it emerged that in the last 40 years the percentage of female professionals belonging to Ferpi has increased from 15 to 57.4 per cent of the membership. Many of Ferpi’s female members are entrepreneurs; others are communications managers in large corporations, many of them multinational companies.

These numbers reveal that women working in PR are far more numerous than those working in professions more established than public relations, such as lawyers, engineers, architects, doctors and notaries, all of which have female association representation below 50 per cent.

A second research study was conducted in 2009 by Udine University student, Daniela Mian, for her public relations studies. Mian worked on her degree thesis with Professor Giampietro Vecchiato, an influential Ferpi member. The results were shared in January 2011.

The study stresses that, in managing a company, female employees:

  • follow more rigorous criteria
  • employ more adequate risk/benefit ratios; and
  • use emotional intelligence and empathy

…thus being more capable in communicating with the different corporate stakeholders.

Additionally, female managers carry on a leadership model based on sharing, negotiation and inclusion. They are better at multitasking, complexity management and problem solving, as generally they have to interpret multiple roles in life.

Owing to these attributes, often women bring more added value to the PR role than men. And according to the study, this is the reason for their being given responsible roles more frequently than women employed in other corporate sectors.

More findings

A further detail that emerged from Mian’s work is that women deliberately choose to study public relations, not only because it is employment with an appealing range of responsibilities and activities, but also because fewer men select the profession; therefore, the possibilities of being discriminated against are lower.

Less encouraging was that only 46 per cent of the PR practitioners interviewed (both female and male) report directly to the CEO, while the remaining practitioners occupy lower ranks in the corporate hierarchy. This demonstrates that public relations is not yet situated as a strategic function in many Italian-based companies, i.e., not considered to add to the bottom line. It follows, logically, that because men prefer more “influential” positions (i.e., finance, sales and even marketing), fewer of them apply for PR positions, allowing females to determine this career path has smaller numbers of male counterparts as obstacles to promotions.

In my opinion, females working in PR face the same challenges as women working in other areas—such as balancing work and family above all. As the mother of a seven-year-old daughter, I can attest to this.

Another challenge: there may be a reduced competition by men, but still women’s professional success is made more difficult by mostly being assigned operative (or tactical) work.

How can Italian women address this?

A first priority that PR women should address is contributing towards developing a communications culture inside organizations, through value-added work that moves public relations towards being considered a strategic function. This will empower the women who hold these positions.

Effectively, this would create more work opportunities, as companies begin to realize that they cannot do without communicating with various stakeholders on an ongoing basis. Because women constitute the majority of students in communications and public relations programs, these enhanced positions would mostly go to them.

Cultural challenges

The second issue women should address is increasing their personal empowerment.

This a cultural problem and one with ancient roots. While over the last century Italian women are fortunate enough to have attained fundamental, legislated rights, they still lack what can be called the “soft” rights. By this I mean making their profile and presence weigh as much as men, such as being treated with respect and consideration and having their requests met.

Feminist activism alone cannot take care of this “soft” rights imbalance. With the protection of laws (obtained thanks to feminists and increasing numbers of females in the workplace) women must take responsibility for the next steps ahead and personally work towards having their rights respected in reality, not simply written on paper.

This is especially true in workplaces, where women tend to take it for granted that they will be treated with the same treatment as men, in regards to career advancement, training opportunities and salaries.

Why do they take this for granted?

Statistics show that, traditionally, Italian female students score higher than their male counterparts, both in earlier schooling and at university. As a consequence, they tend to expect the same results in the corporate world.

Big mistake.

Unfortunately for these young women, other rules (both known and unspoken) apply in the workplaces, which are not so advantageous for women.

Because of the upbringing young Italian women receive, through both their families and at school, they have difficulties in understanding these unwritten rules and expected manners of conduct. For example:

  1. Girls are taught to be quiet and unforthcoming.
  2. They are told that asking for their needs to be met is not proper behaviour—that it is ungraceful.
  3. They are encouraged to be modest and adopt an indirect way of speaking, as well as to keep a low profile at all times.

When young women finally land jobs, unless their temperaments are naturally straightforward and bold, in time they adopt the same behavioural style as the majority of women already in the workplace. They rein back more assertive, business-oriented behaviour and are kept back from promotions as a consequence.

By comparison, men who have received a dissimilar upbringing and learned a very different set of expectations altogether, step up and receive the benefit of the prevalent workplace environment, in terms of career status, workplace treatment and the like.

The “girls” factor

A further, more subtle form of discrimination is treating women like “girls,” including the language used to refer to them. The worst part of this equation is when the career-limiting habit is reinforced by women themselves.

In Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers—an extraordinary book I strongly recommend all working woman read—its American writer and consultant, Lois P. Frankel, points out that quite frequently women, “like to be considered as nice chicks.”

According to Frankel, many working women prefer to emphasize their physical assets, rather than having their competence, abilities and experience stand out. The consequence is an unprofessional behaviour that penalizes women, even when they are capable and do great work.

Though she wrote it to delineate the current state of female Corporate America, Frankel’s bestseller is eerily similar to how many Italian women conduct themselves on a daily basis in the workplace. Women who lack this kind of self-awareness are their own worst enemy, as they sabotage years of hard work and advocacy to achieve experience, competence and respect. Consequently, it is both ironic and sad to hear these same women complain about not receiving the employment opportunities and promotions they “deserve.”

Moving forward

It is up to us—Italians and other nationalities—to become aware of these underlying issues and behavioural expectations and to fix them. That is, if we want to start significantly improving our own work conditions, particularly when it comes to opportunities in public relations (where we predominate in numbers), and contribute towards improving the status of all women.

A female professional who secures advantages for herself—be it a salary increase, greater responsibilities, a higher budget for her team or whatever it is (provided she does not do obtain these things at the expense of another woman)—automatically raises the level of all of her “sisters.” I offer up this challenge to all female employees—because this does not need to stop at the public relations management function. I hold out an even larger responsibility and task: thanks to our relationship-building abilities, opportunities to reach various publics and have our “messages” reach a wide variety of recipient, we can work towards widening the spectrum and promoting the need for female equality in other areas of the workplace in terms of being valued as employees.

As an in-house practitioner in a small company, on a daily basis I have to address many of the issues described above. Companies in smaller Italian cities and towns consider communication as an “accessory” function, to the extent that sometimes I feel it will be years before any real transformation happens. But I am committed to making sure change does occur, as my personal contribution to the Italian PR profession. In order to ensure the debate around the importance of communication continues, as well as my own growth in the discipline, I have very recently joined Ferpi.

In future I would like to start my own professional services agency, focusing on public relations. At present these type of services are mostly provided by PR agencies in large cities. This is discouraging for small, local entrepreneurs. If companies can find quality in communication, regionally, through smaller agencies, they will begin to see the real value of public relations and communication management.

Another recent study (also in Italian) details Italian women’s lower salaries and reduced career opportunities (February 2012).

____________________________________________________________________________________

Enrica Orecchia is an Italian public relations practitioner who has worked for more than 15 years as a in-house practitioner in a small-medium enterprise (SME) in the North-West Italy province, where she manages all aspects of communication.

A former tour leader, translator, teacher and journalist she chose public relations as the profession that best satisfied her thirst for relating and communicating in a variety of ways, as well as a curiosity for everything happening in the world around her.

Since 2006, on her Italian-language blog, L’officina della comunicazione, Enrica Orecchia has written about communications and PR, with a particular focus on small enterprise issues.

Involved in a couple of professional associations in her home town of Alessandria, she recently joined Ferpi (Federazione Relazioni Pubbliche Italiana).

Online she can be found on Linkedin and Twitter and blogging at L’officinadellacomunicazione.

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9 Responses to “Italian women in PR: challenges and opportunities”
  1. toni muzi falconi says:

    This is one hell of an interesting post related to an issue that, frankly, has never really stirred my passion. Ehm…is it machoism?

    Or is it simply because fifty years of professional experience have convinced me that the gender issue in pr is the scarcity of men (am currently teaching my global relations course at nyu and seven out of seven of my students are women).

    Probably both.

    By the way, one of the many excellent presentations at the recent miami iprrc conference was titled: ‘it’s not raining men: why the gender gap in the study of public relations’ by Brad Rawlins, Judy Van Slyke Turk and Kevin Stoker.

    Also, I am very happy that Enrica has decided to join Ferpi and contribute to our efforts. I have never met her, but I have been following her very insightful blog for some time.

  2. Bill Huey says:

    Ferpi has only 57 percent females? Why, you’re pikers! PRSA is 80 percent female in most places, and, as Toni pointed out, classes are at least 70 percent female. I’ve seen classes and Bateman Competition teams (PRSA) where there are NO males.

    A very interesting set of comparative numbers and insights. For example, only 46 percent report to the CEO? But PRSA’s new definition says that PR is “strategic” and the old one claimed for years that it is a “management function.”

    The cognitive dissonance is ringing in my ears.

  3. toni muzi falconi says:

    Bill, the 46% number of pr’s who report to the ceo relates presumably to a sample of organizations of all sizes (small,medium, large; private public and social sector).

    If you did something similar in the USA, the percentage would probably be in the low twenties…

    Prof. Invernizzi from IULM University in Milano has been tracking the Mediobanca list of major corporations (something like the fortune 500) since 1994, and while the number of dedicated public relations/communication departments has grown from 22% in 1994 to 86% in 2011, in 50% of those companies the director of the department is officially part of the c-suite and in 67% at least occasionally participates at c-suite meetings.

    What’s more, in 76% of those companies the director of communication/public relations reports directly to the president, the managing director or the director general (according to the profile of each company, all three positions are equivalent to the Ceo).

    cheers,
    toni

  4. Thank you everybody for commenting.

    @Toni Muzi Falconi : thank you for welcoming me at Ferpi. I hope that my work in the Federation will contribute to raise pr culture in organizations, particularly the smallest ones, thus helping both PR and women in getting higher positions in the company management.

    @ Bill Huey: there is really no cognitive dissonance: PRSA says Pr is a strategic function meaning, I believe, that Pr is entitled to be considered strategic, therefore describing more an ideal situation than the reality everywhere. Many Italian small companies – especially those located in the farthermost areas, are far – really far sometimes – from doing Pr, let alone from considering it strategic.

  5. Thank you for the post Enrica, it is always helpful to have different perspectives on a topic that we have discussed frequently at PR Conversations, because it interests many people (academics as well as practitioners). I know that Eurprera has a project looking at Women in PR in Europe (http://www.euprera.org/?p=80) as this is a subject that has largely been researched from a US perspective.

    I agree with Toni to the extent that we need to understand the issue relating to gender balance – which is where this post begins. One of my interests is in the impact of PR as an increasingly female occupation and the need to ensure that men are attracted to work in PR as well, particularly from the start of their careers. Otherwise we continue to see men parachute in as ex-journalists and head up functions at the expense of women who have clocked up more experience in PR.

    There are other issues that although they may not interest all men (particularly those who spent their formative PR career on Mars i.e. before the increased presence of women). These include the parental challenges of combining building a career with other commitments. This isn’t just a female issue as it affects couples, and increasingly men who have caring responsibilities. We also need to look at issues around women in their 40s and upwards who may have stayed in PR faced with caring for elderly parents too.

    I’d always thought of Italy as very supportive of women (after all the stereotype is that women rule the families), so how this challenge is faced in a traditional matriarchal society is also interesting. Would love to hear more from other countries on the gender balance issue too – within PR and outside it.

  6. It looks like the comment I sent last night has been lost.
    Thank you everybody for commenting.
    @Toni Muzi Falconi: thank you for welcoming me at Ferpi. I will try to contribute as much as possible in increasing the communications culture (which by they way should hopefully help more women to get more management positions).
    @ Bill Huey: there is no cognitive discrepancy, as PRSA is mentioning an ideal situation, one in which PR is considered strategic. The situation of small Italian companies, especially those in the farthermost areas, is far from being that one. Many small entrepreneurs do not consider communications at all, let alone think it is strategic.
    @Heather Yaxley: first, let me say that working with you and Judy Gombita has been really great. Thank you for the opportunity of writing a guest post on your blog.
    I would welcome the presence of more men in Pr, as in Italy it is a matter of fact that when positions are occupied by women mostly, salaries tend to go down. So women face less discrimination by men but earn less money, which is probably the worst discrimination.
    As we do not have many social services helping women ( kindergartens is an example), it is family that mostly helps women, especially women in the family (grandmothers). Otherwise Italy isnt’ supportive towards women at all and those who have elderly parents face difficulties in balancing family care and work.

  7. Kunal Pal says:

    Hi Enrica,

    Thanks for your very interesting article. The LinkedIn poll that you cite in your opening paragraph was actually started by us at Image Management — and based on the overwhelming response to it, we published an article on our website analyzing the results (http://imagemanagement.in/?p=922). Would appreciate it if you could read the article and share your thoughts.

    I think a lot of people who responded to the poll felt that while there are undoubtedly more women in PR than men, this might not be true across all different levels in the industry. For instance, when it comes to managers and CEOs, the ratio of women to men is not as start as at the executive level. Do you think that is true in Italy as well?

    Apart from this, there was a definite sense that women are more cooperative while men tend to be more competitive. Especially as PR evolves into being as much about owning up to mistakes as compared to highlighting successes, women PR professionals seem to be better equipped for the new PR.

    Again, would love your thoughts on our article.

    Regards,
    Kunal

  8. Enrica Orecchia says:

    Hi Kunal,

    thanks for your comments and for linking your article. This gave me the chance of reading the complete and final results, in fact I had been following the discussion only to a certain extent.

    On communications skills:

    I am part of the 44 % that voted (among the options provided) on women being better communicators and I believe that, as an average, they do have better social skills. However, a research I mentioned in my post shows that women are also better at evalutating when to take risks and are good at solving problems and at negotiation, which are not social – but strategic – abilities. As Pr is now – at least in theory – recognized as a strategic function – for which communication alone isn’t enough, we must recognize that women possess other useful abilities for doing good Pr. As a consequence, I prefer avoiding to excessively stress social and communicative skills, as this would cause people to believe that women are just “good at chatting” and that’s all. Chatting is one thing and communicating – in Pr – is entirely another. It involves a complete process which is far from being spontaneous, superficial and chatty. Women working in Pr have prepared themselves for that profession by studying and getting experiences no less than men doing the same job.

    On women being the majority in Pr:

    While I do not think it is a problem in itself for women being the great majority in Pr, I am concerned about their salaries getting lower than those in fields were men are numerous. This frequently happens – I refer to the situation Italy, as I do not know abroad – when women are by far the majority compared to men. For example in Italy school teachers are mostly women, and in fact, Italian teachers’ salaries are among the lowest in Europe and their category reputation suffers, too.

    • Bill Huey says:

      PR isn’t strategic in theory–only in practice–and, as I’ve said here before–unless one is willing to undertake the difficult and complex work of strategy, calling PR “strategic” won’t make it so.

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