PR – it's a woman's world

Mary Cassatt: Young Woman Sewing in the garden, c.1880-82

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.

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30 Replies to “PR – it's a woman's world

  1. Both the above article and the comments posted in response to the piece piqued my interest as I have found the “gender” argument in Public Relations (PR) to be significantly relevant in both the academic and corporate world.

    During my studies, furious discussions about men and women in PR would come up in class and heated debates would ensue as to which gender is more capable in the world of communication. I then completed my degree, entered the corporate world and found that this particular conversation is dead. Men and women are both taking on senior roles in PR and the buzz created in the academic war room has left me disappointed after stepping into the office. To my mind, the gender inequality card in PR has been played.

    In fact, taking historic arguments into consideration, the tables have almost turned and about 70% of today’s practitioners are women. Perhaps the issue is not so much that women cannot “take the task on” (as mentioned by David Phillips in a previous comment) but rather that their views and perceptions of handling the task are different than to that of men. The importance of workplace issues such as job opportunities and advancement (Aldoory & Toth, 2002), sexual harassment (Serini, Toth, Wright & Emig, 1998), and family friendly policies on their careers (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2002) are placed in different orders of priority depending on if you are male or female.

    Combine the aforementioned prioritisations along with innate feminine qualities such as empathy, conversational skills and an ability to facilitate power sharing (Pearce, 2010); perhaps there is good reason as to why women moving up the ranks in this particular industry.

    A real life example for me came in the form of my reporting lines at work. When I began working for a well-renowned financial institution in 2010 I reported straight into the head of the department; a woman. She held all the traits mentioned above and her mentoring skills had soft aspects that improved my confidence as a beginner in the industry. Six months later she left and I began reporting into a male manager. His style was much harder and cut-throat with little concern for furthering my career unless it furthered his own. Both of these styles demonstrate the basic notions of male versus female approaches to mentorship and relationship building and illustrate how females value the relationship over the power. I understand that this is an isolated event that cannot be generalised across a broader sample, however, my experience (to date) working with both men and women in the industry, exemplify basic male and female traits.

    In the end I do suppose that it comes down to an individual with their own values and goals but there must be a solid scientific reason as to why women are starting to dominate the PR arena.

    1. Michelle,

      Interesting to hear your view that the conversation about gender is ‘dead’ in practice. I disagree especially if you actually start a conversation on the topic where you’ll find most people still have a view (or at least that’s my experience in the UK). Yes, women are taking on more senior roles in PR and coming to dominate the occupation – but believing that there is gender equality in the workplace is not borne out by research. For a start – do you see that being head of a PR function is the ultimate career goal for someone working in the field? Are PR professionals as capable in achieving a CEO function as any other discipline? Does being a female dominated field affect such moves – particularly when so few women are on the board of major companies (let alone really having equality in most country’s political systems).

      Women may well (as a generalisation) have a different working style and that may well reflect a less hard-edged approach. But is that to say that the more aggressive, traditional male approach to work isn’t still evident in the operation of many organizations? As you note, there may be different priorities for men and women – but are these matched by policies in organizations that enable a work-life balance when you have primary responsibility for children, elderly parents etc – regardless of being male or female?

      I find it disappointing to hear so many women say that it is down to individuals rather than seeing any need for the work systems to change. Only yesterday I had a discussion with a senior female PR manager in a major global organization who has had to make decisions about both marriage and childcare in order to fulfil the expectations in her role. Of course the same could be said of men today – and that really is part of my point. If there is equality, if this includes equality in terms of responsibilities outside the work environment, then is the work environment facilitating this – or are we finding that if you cannot devote 24:7 to a career in PR (regardless of gender) by having supportive family, partners, or no dependents – you will have to find work satisfaction in self-employment or some other compromise.

      I feel we are doing women in PR a disservice to imply that you can have it all – provided you adapt to the system.

  2. I was especially interested in reading this post because, as a junior PR major at Kent State University in Ohio, it’s become a running joke that our public relations skills classes are dominated by females. We’ve often had discussions in class about the reasons behind this imbalance, and I am always fascinated by the varied responses I hear. I can’t help wondering if the “typical” gender stereotypes play at all into the equation. PR is about building relationships and fostering dialogue with an organization’s publics. One of the most important things we’re told again and again in our PR classes is that it’s not just about talking; effective communication starts with listening. Generally, women tend to be the more open communicators of the two genders. As these gender stereotypes go, women are more sensitive to others’ needs and, let’s face it, most of us love to talk. As much as I hate to generalize, I think the inherent differences in the way men and women fundamentally operate must have something to do with PR being a woman’s world.

    I also wanted to react to Melanie’s comment about “doing some PR for PR” and “ensuring the quality of the next generation of the profession.” I admit that PR is depicted as a much more glamorous career choice than journalist for those of us who consider communicating and writing our strong suits. At Kent State, PR majors learn quickly that there is much more to the profession than planning glamorous events and promoting movies, music artists and sports teams. Although many of my classmates still have aspirations of a career in entertainment PR, we are taught the importance of fundamentals and given a broad range of tools to develop skills that will prepare us for a career in PR, no matter what avenue we choose. Our skills courses are rigorous, we take the same writing intensive sequence as other journalism majors and we are required to complete at least one relevant internship for graduation. For what it’s worth, I feel like I’m being prepared for the “real world,” as most of my professors have extensive experience outside of academia.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post! The more I delve into the world of PR, the more I am assured in my decision that this is the career path I’m meant to follow.

    1. Sarah,

      Thank you for your comment. I am not convinced by the argument of gender stereotypes in respect of women having ‘softer skills’ that are suited to relationship building and fostering dialogue. My reason is that firstly, the logic isn’t there in relation to the intake at Universities. As you note, many students come in thinking PR is very glamourous. So they aren’t responding to an innate preference for a career that suits their ‘softer skills’ (at least not overtly) – but to a desire to be doing something exciting perhaps.

      Secondly – and even more important – is that there is a real danger in linking women to this set of skills. Focusing on PR as involving relationship building, reputation management etc raises questions about the value of these to organizations. These are areas which are largely not measured in financial terms in the same way as other aspects of business. So PR, and those who practice it, can be seen as work that is less valuable (in the traditional economic terms).

      As with housework and other perspectives of ‘women’s work’, without a really robust financial measure, PR work if equated to being most suitable to women’s skills seems to me a negative concept to propagate.

      A third consideration is that it is a stereotype that restricts women’s competencies. Women may well have some intuitive relationship and listening skills (or not), but surely we are capable of delivering on harder skills too. If women in PR really want to get to the top and earn high salaries, then we need to be able to demonstrate solid understanding of the areas that are valued – such as financial metrics, measurement and other commercial acumen. I trust those are areas you are also learning in your studies.

  3. Heather,

    I would be happy to share my study with you and your student once I finish the paper. My goal is to complete it by the end of the month. Please feel free to share your student’s work with me as well — it sounds very interesting.

    Also, thank you so much for suggested reading. I’m grateful for your help!


  4. Hi, Heather,

    Thanks for a great discussion. I’m wondering whether pay levels between men and women really are the same. The 2007 study in the Public Relations Journal by David Dozier, Bey-Ling Sha, and Masako Okura suggested a significant salary disparity by gender, even after controlling for motherhood:

    Am I missing a more recent study about salary disparity or perhaps there are geographic differences?


    1. Tiffany – my n’est pas question wasn’t meant to imply there was equality, but more ironically that surely this is the case. If we have reached the multi-focal fifth phase of feminism identified by Tetreault, then that should mean equality. Although, Larissa Grunig suggested a sixth phase being equality of opportunity, but women still taking primary responsibility for home and family outside of work.

      This new study from the Institute of Leadership & Management looks at disparity between genders: – it has particular focus on ambition (as David alluded to above).

      My intuitive feeling is that notionally salary levels are equal (indeed, legally they have to be), however, in practice I expect that if we look at women and men with the same competencies and abilities they would not be rewarded at the same level. However, that may mean that men are in positions above their competencies where women’s lower ambitions and confidence mean they are not working at their optimum level. That’s a gross generalisation, but reflects my experience (as well as observations in this study). I wonder also about motivation and whether women are less motivated by (a) money and (b) the nature of positions that return the greatest reward. The above study also notes women more likely to want to set up their own business – which may be an “easier” way of them getting better rewards.

      1. The independent Lord Davies’ report on Women in UK boardrooms was published yesterday:

        Tiffany – also reminded of the CIPR state of the profession study last year which noted pay and seniority discrepancies across genders: However, that was a self-selected sample from CIPR members, so not an absolute study of the occupation so much as data from those who responded.

        1. Hi, Heather,

          Thanks for the clarification and for pointing me to those insightful studies. I read them with great interest. I was surprised to learn of the results of the ambition and gender study by the Institute of Leadership & Management, and I appreciated the organization’s recommendations to change the workplace environment in ways that could result in increased confidence and senior management positions for female PR practitioners.

          It was interesting to read the Institute’s suggestion about encouraging workplaces to move away from the male breadwinner role by ensuring that senior leadership roles allow enough balance for work and family. I recently collected results through a qualitative study that showed some level of annoyance by entry-level practitioners by how much perks and flexibility mothers received in the workplace (e.g., more flex time, ability to leave to pick son up from baseball practice). This wasn’t information I was looking for, but it came up as a big issue in the focus groups. The new practitioners (and most participants were female) saw it as a fairness issue, and they wanted the same work-life balance they saw mother managers receiving. Should everyone have the same accommodations for work-life balance or should this be reserved for senior positions?

          Also, I was thrilled to see your reference to Tetreault’s framework. Lauri’s study of PR scholarship was insightful, and the framework is inspirational. I enjoyed revisiting it.

          Thank you so much for sharing your time, insight and thoughts with me.


          1. Tiffany – glad you enjoyed the links. It is interesting to see that the studies are generally recommending organisational changes, yet most of the PR practitioner comments I’ve seen on sites such as PR Moment seem to believe the issue is entirely a personal one (

            That fits with the observations you note about how annoyance at working mothers by those without children. I think that more flexibility for all would benefit everyone (including employers) as we all have different types of commitment (increasingly care for parents etc). Although I believe personal motivation is important, undoubtedly the nature of modern working environments have an impact. It is fine to talk about women being able to balance etc and that’s fine if you have access to relevant support networks, but doesn’t help most of us. Indeed, flexibility is often easier to find in self-employment.

            Incidentally, I am supervising a PR student who is undertaking research with undergraduates into their thoughts on women in the occupation and particularly looking at their ambitions to obtain leadership positions. If you have anything that you could share from your research, please let me know as I’m sure it would fit with her studies. Likewise, we’d be able to share back.

            BTW, another could of good recent chapters are Rakow & Nastasia: On Feminist Theory of Public Relations: An Example from Dorothy E Smith (In PR and Social Theory by Ihlen et al, 2009) and Wrigley: Feminist Scholarship and its contribution to Public Relations in the 2nd edition of Heath’s Handbook of Public Relations (2010).

            However, from a UK perspective, seems to be too little research on the topic – I did note a study may be undertaken by EUPRERA which would give the European perspective. That would be welcome to the body of knowledge.

  5. I agree with Melanie, “Part of our responsibility in this industry is to do some PR for PR — to ensure the quality of the next generation of the profession.”… and I add that this discussion strikes me as useful.


  6. Interesting, post, Heather. I, too, agree that “we need PR to be better understood by parents, career advisors and others who influence degree choices.”

    I teach PR in the Creative Communications program at Red River College in Winnipeg; in our program, students study a common curriculum in their first year (introductions to PR, advertising, journalism and media production), and THEN declare a major area of study. Based on my own observation (that is, having asked), the majority of students enter the program planning to major in journalism — but for the three years I’ve been there, at least, PR has ended up being the most popular major. Once the students actually learn something about the profession, a significant number of them see the potential for a rewarding career in PR.

    Part of our responsibility in this industry is to do some PR for PR — to ensure the quality of the next generation of the profession.

  7. Heather, how far have we really progressed with a gender power balance? PR Week’s 2010 Power Book on the PR industry shows these ratios for women vs men in the following categories:

    City & Corporate: 2:10
    Consumer: 3:10
    Technology: 2:10
    Lobbying & PA: 0:10
    Entertainment: 1:10
    Politics: 0:5
    Public Sector: 3:10
    Digital: 1:10

    Only in Healthcare do women have greater power than men in PR. Here the ratio is 7:10. So, it seems PR Week’s methodology is suspect (they do say in the preface it can never be ‘purely scientific’), or women still have a very long way to go before they have parity with men in the PR sector.

    1. Andy – as I understand it, the methodology of the PR Week Power Book has been for entrants to be selected by the publication, but that’s changed to self-promotion this year. Either way, it is hardly a robust method for identifying those with ‘power’ (whatever that means) in PR.

      It would be interesting to see research that shows the number of women in senior PR positions across a variety of sectors, and within major PR consultancies – as well as data on the mid-roles that potentially lead to the high echelon.

      I’d also like to consider that idea of power further – are these the influencers in our field? Would you select someone for a power-spot because of the job they fill or is it more about the individual – or both?

      Another thought that I’m looking at in my PhD is in respect of what we mean also by ‘successful career’ as there seems to be a notion that everyone should be looking to climb a ladder (which I think is a very 1950s organizational metaphor) to the top. But perhaps that isn’t what women are looking for in their careers and get their personal and professional satisfaction in other ways.

      Lots here to ponder…

      1. Heather, yes, how to define power as opposed to influence? Good luck on that one! It will be interesting to see how PR Week’s Power Book changes now that self-promotion skill is the determining factor (I certainly recall reading somewhere that men’s supremacy over women at this was one reason put forward for fewer women rising to top positions!). I’m with you on the notion of climbing the career ladder, and am firmly of the view that ‘careers’ are over-rated in the context of general life. I’ll wager there are no successfull business people who will one day regret the fact that they didn’t spend more time at work, whereas we all know people who’ve done great things at work, but at a high cost to their personal lives.

  8. Sophie – thank you for your comment and I agree with you that it is important for other business oriented degrees to include PR. We are taking that a stage further with the undergraduate course at Bournemouth University this year as PR, advertising and marketing students not only study an integrated unit but they are in cross-discipline groups for their assignment. Not sure how this will work out, but it is an interesting approach – and I trust will ensure the advertising and marketing students don’t see PR as simply involved in writing press releases and hosting events.

    The approach you outline in taking an MA in PR without any experience is somewhat new in the UK – although something I recognise for undergraduates. I am surprised when someone signs up to a qualification without really knowing where it ought to lead in career terms – and there are plenty of resources now available via professional bodies and so forth that should ensure recognition that it is a broad and robust career option.

    But as you rightly indicate, this is an area where perhaps more needs to be done – and certainly ensuring higher aspirational goals beyond the ‘p&f’ is important.

  9. This is a really interesting article and I am somewhat shocked by some oppinions made. I am a MA PR student in the UK and am hoping that I am learning the write skills to be able to get a good job in PR and not to be constrained to “pink and fluffy” jobs.

    I agree with David Phillips that ‘many students set their sights far, far too low.’ But this is because many students that choose a MA course in PR have never worked or experienced the PR world before. Most of them probably think it is a very glamorous business to be working in. But this is not always the case.

    I think that PR should be spoken about more often in Marketing focused BA courses. I did my BA in Amsterdam and had a vague idea of what PR was and that I would like to work in that field but didn’t receive any information about it during my course. Through work experience and working part time at a PR agency I really got to grips with PR.

    I definitely agree with: ‘Also, we need PR to be better understood by parents, career advisors and others who influence degree choices so that they recognise this is a path that the best candidates should be considering.’

    But as a woman wanting to enter the PR industry after my MA I hope I get an equil opportunity as the men do.

  10. David – I couldn’t agree with you more about the challenge for those entering public relations and ensuring that they are both ambitious enough and qualified enough to realise the potential for PR. I also believe they need to be taught to be more entrepreneurial not just to fit into the corporate system (which arguably is changing as a career path and requires self-motivated individuals as much as consultancy and self-employment).

    There are good calibre candidates on our undergraduate and professional qualification courses – but not enough. Also, we need PR to be better understood by parents, career advisors and others who influence degree choices so that they recognise this is a path that the best candidates should be considering.

    You say that marketing (and presumably advertising) are dead – but I fear the reality here is not as you hope. Marketing courses still attract larger numbers than PR ones – and a better gender balance on these. The best also have a strong focus on business beyond communications – and learn the management talk about evaluation and so forth which is appealing in business. They may also find that those in organizations have marketing rather than PR backgrounds and so the door is ajar for them.

    As Hutton has written, marketing is reinventing itself as PR – so we cannot be complacent in that regard. Indeed, I had an interesting talk at a course recently with someone from one of the really big agencies who still argues that advertising’s strategic influence will see its senior practitioners remain influential with CEOs by offering what we would essentially recognise as PR rather than traditional advertising.

    But maybe the solution is not to fight over territory, or calibre of undergraduates, but to look at the general principles of ensuring these young people are equipped for senior positions not just their first jobs on leaving University. I’m not advocating integrated communications degrees (as that tends, again as Hutton has written – and in my own experience – to do PR no favours). But what I think may be the future is a degree topic that maybe is a modern business studies, reflecting that the competencies and skills in future will be those that we know are essential to PR’s strategic role (reputation, risk, relationships, values, etc).

  11. Heather, I get your point but fear that the reality is not as you hopeful as you suggest. Driving corporate relations and taking up the slack from what was once the powerful (but now utterly found out) marketing department is a big job and women are having a tough time taking it on.

    We are fighting too many battles. Marketing is dead and has been for a long time but not all marketing is dead so we have to take up the slack. Internet mediated PR and the online PR effects on people who do not use the internet directly (but like all of us are now pretty well dependant one stage removed) is still not taken very seriously by the PR industry.

    At the same time many students set their sights far, far too low.

    The Head of PR in most companies should be there as the next CEO. It matters not whether man or woman and in an industry with three to one bias of women to men (or something like that) we need to be teaching students how to run our big organisations as well as PR.

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