Time to bend gender attitudes for social and professional change

Just when you think an issue is sorted, done, dusted and settled – up it comes again. The issue on my mind today is gender and its impact on public relations. I have attended three different events in roughly as many weeks and at each one, the issue of ‘feminisation of the public relations profession’ has taken centre stage.

At one educational establishment, the discussion revolved around getting more ‘men’ on the course, with the inference being that the course credibility would suffer if this didn’t happen. At another event for senior practitioners, the research presented suggested that the increasing percentage of women practitioners meant that the profession’s standing was undermined; also that top level operators were hard to come by because women were being left at the bottom of the talent pool. Finally, at a tech event, the suggestion was that ‘women didn’t do technical’, so as online engagement progressed, so too the numbers of women in public relations would decrease, therefore it would be alright in the end. Three events full of stereotyping, misinformation and misogyny led me, rather shamefully, towards invective and splutter on my journey home from the last one, almost to the point where all I could articulate was an angry yell (much to the surprise of my fellow ferry passengers).

We all know that this question has been researched exhaustively, books have been written on the subject by Larissa Grunig and others and more information is added, well, pretty much daily. But given the amount of research that highlights the issue, I can find precious little evidence of recent action to change the well researched attitudes that appear to prevail.

Obviously it is not an attitude confined to the public relations profession. I have heard similar conversations among accountants, doctors and lawyers concerning current gender balance within their professions. A recent report on Gender in Agriculture,  a collaboration between the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Bank detailed 15 years worth of empirical evidence concerning the impact of gender in agriculture.

In its conclusions it states:

“Perhaps the broadest lesson to be drawn from the accounts given in the Sourcebook relates to the extent to which we can rely on markets to improve the status of women and capitalize on their potential as producers. It is important to dispel any notion that markets alone will naturally generate social change that benefits women, or that the risks and opportunities present within markets are in any way gender neutral. Rather, the ability of rural women to participate in markets as rational economic actors is very often negotiated within a context of cultural norms and expectations. In that context social convention and propriety may impinge heavily in a woman’s freedom to explore the economic opportunities that emerge as markets expand and change.”

A conclusion that could be validly drawn across more areas of activity than agriculture perhaps?  Is it not time we changed the conventions and allowed women practitioners more freedom to explore? Pay rates in public relations vary considerably between men and women with huge gaps in some countries. As a job, it is less accommodating than most in terms of work/life balance and has tried to fit itself to Victorian business models. Expressions like ‘PR Poppet’, ‘Fluffy Bunnies’ and ‘PR Bunnies’ are rife, and these, along with other descriptors which I am not going to post here, undermine and denigrate both the profession and women.

So why do we allow people to get away with it? Why is there a pay gap? Why are there less opportunities at the ‘top end’ for female practitioners, while those in the middle and starting out have less reward?  This is not a local phenomenon. I recall several comments from the floor at this year’s World PR festival, numerous discussions on the issue among delegates (from all continents) during breaks and there is the mountain of available research and observation.  I wonder if the recent discussions in Milan on institutionalisation (of which I hope we hear more soon) held any mention of the issue and if so, what was said?

The role of the public relations practitioner is a very powerful one, which is why I believe the issues of institutionalisation and feminisation are such thorny ones, and why both will ultimately create the future regard for the work we do. There has long been a resistance in many cultures – particularly business cultures – towards women holding powerful roles at all levels of society. This resistance is often manifested, replicated and enforced by the choice of language and descriptors used to influence and ‘inform’ others – just look at how Sarah Palin was dubbed ‘Caribou Barbie’ within hours of her first speech as vice-presidential candidate.  Interesting still, is how – and why – women allow such descriptors to ride without intercepting and altering the skewed perception that such language brings.  And it isn’t just women either – look at the descriptors used for our profession: go on, you fill in the blanks. I know you will be able to think of some.  Why do practitioners collude with a shy grin when introduced as ‘spin doctors’ or produce a wry smile when described as being ‘from the dark side’?   The old school-yard rhyme goes “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you”.  That might be true – but they sure can undermine your credibility.

So given our roles, our abilities and the vast range of tools at our disposal should we not, as a profession and for our profession be individually and collectively active in changing such attitudes and language for the benefit of all practitioners as well as the people we serve?

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11 Replies to “Time to bend gender attitudes for social and professional change

  1. I am a senior PR student at Kent State University in Ohio. Out of all the PR classes I have taken thus far, I have only had one male student in one of those classes. As all the previous posts have noted, there is definitely a gender imbalance in this profession. From what I am experiencing, the imbalance is not going anywhere anytime soon.

    In a class I took last semester, we researched the reasons behind the lack of male students in PR Kent’s program. We found out that most males entering into college have the slightest clue what PR is. So how can we expect more males in the profession when they don’t know that this may be a solid career fit for them?

    In this class we also discussed some qualities that we, as college women majoring in PR, thought were essential to a PR career. One thing that is really important to this career is writing. Another is managing client and public relationships. It may sound sexist, but these are things that women just may be better at. Writing and relationship management may also scare men away from this field.

    Whether women are better in the field of PR or not is besides the point. I really feel that my male peers are not educated about this career field. And this lack of knowledge is going to continue the gender imbalance in PR. So, if something is going to be done about this issue, it should start with educating the male population about PR.

  2. Judy,

    Glad to hear you are a proponent of the ‘language shapes consciousness’ concept and the article you linked to is further supported by some great reading in New Scientist this week on social signalling and ‘meaning within words’ – I have no source other than the hard copy I bought at the airport I’m afraid!


    I think you may have misunderstood my post. It is not a question of ‘suddenly waking up’ to the issue, but a question of why on earth does the issue still exist? Particularly when most of the outdated and limiting thinking that characterised the 1970s and previous decades on issues of gender, race and equality has, in many, many cultures and geographical locations, been replaced by better educated and more informed opinions that realise the significant benefits to all of social justice and fairness.

    I have to disagree with your point on PR faculties as I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest they are any more ‘feminised’ than any other faculty or that having a greater number of female lecturers/professors has an impact on the balance of students enrolling.

    Women have entered the world workforce in significant numbers over the last forty years and certainly in many Western economies, the expectation is that they must join the workforce in a wide range of capacities, not only to feed and house their families but so tax revenues can be increased and skills shortages resolved. This might see them become Prime Minister (as here in NZ) or CEO, teacher, accountant, doctor, scientist, architect, technician, engineer, farmer or any other role that suits their talents and abilities. I would be interested to learn where, as you suggest, the notion of public relations being a ‘female’ major is entrenched. (I haven’t repeated your terminology simply because it is a classic example of language being utilised in order to diminish status, although I am sure you would have been quoting this description from another source).

    If in your part of the world the industry business model resembles the one you describe, then I would definitely agree with your suggestion that your professional association needs to be on to the situation quick-smart in order to change it for the better. Not to act would leave young members of our workforce exploited and – regardless of gender (or other Brian-outlined descriptor) – likely to leave in favour of better pay, opportunities and conditions elsewhere.

    The seventies-style concept of public relations that you describe is more akin to the mainstream media relations aspect of our work – only ever a part of our function, albeit a more visible one in that era. Sadly this old-school thinking is retained by some and is yet another perception that needs to be tackled and changed. These days, new entrants have to deal with a much wider set of organisational complexities that go far beyond the three things you describe – and fall far outside the extended ‘umbrella’ of activities you indicate. As such, once they leave their PR faculty, their learning and expertise far exceeds any competencies demanded of their Seventies counterpart.

    I would agree that public relations must change existing perceptions regarding itself, gender and equality and this needs to be done – pronto. I can’t however agree with your view and/or description of the trends that you suggest need reversing – nor would I agree that there is a ‘disturbing imbalance’.

    It is the attitudes, perceptions and use of language surrounding this issue that I find most disturbing and most in need of change, not the demography itself. Allowing such attitudes, perceptions and use of language to go unchallenged undermines the individual practitioner and the profession as a whole.

  3. It’s rather amusing to see the PR industry suddenly waking up, looking around, and exclaiming, “Why, goodness, PR is becoming feminized.”

    In fact, feminization has been going on for at least two decades. I noticed it 21 years ago, when I began teaching as an adjunct. Seven of ten public relations students were female, two were male, and one was indeterminate. The trend has intensified to the point where there is a single lone male (the indeterminate one) for every nine females in PR courses. A look at any of the Bateman competition teams in the U.S. confirms this observation.

    What contributed to this disturbing imbalance?

    First (and foremost), the industry business model, which employs young, relatively low-paid females to do the daily scutwork of public relations, supervised by the few males left in the talent pool. This is highly profitable and unlikely to change without pressure applied from within and outside of the industry.

    Second, the feminization of PR faculties around the world has contributed significantly to the notion that public relations is a “chick” major, much as elementary education, design, and fashion merchandising were in the Sixties and Seventies.

    Third, expansion of the scope of activities deemed “public relations” has brought party planners, sales and marketing personnel, lobbyists, and hospitality workers under the tent. To a certain extent, this was always true, but when I first entered the business in the Seventies, you had to be able to do three things well: 1) write and self-edit; deal with reporters and editors; and interact with clients. That is no longer the case.

    Public relations can change this perception, but only by reversing or modifying some of these trends and only if it wants to. So far, it shows no sign of wanting to.

  4. There is an interesting review of the new book, Leadership and the Sexes, in Harvey Schachter’s Managing Books column (Oct. 29/08 Career section, Globe and Mail). I believe Battle of the sexes’ brains is germane to this conversation. (Note that right now it is filed under “Print” edition, rather than Online, so it may only be available for one week.)

  5. Catherine, I’ve long been a proponent of the concept that “language shapes consciousness” and believe this is very true when it comes to perceptions of the public relations “profession,” as well as to its dominant gender group. You are right to be concerned. (FYI, the accounting profession is also concerned about the increasing number of women entering the field, as the perception seems to be strategic financial management, etc., won’t be taken as seriously–although you’ll still find male professional accountants dominating the CEO/CFO and other high-ranking positions.)

    Brian, do you have any personal examples of when being called a “middle-aged Caucasian male” was used in a prejudicial fashion when it came to career advancement and/or perceived expertise in public relations? That’s what I’d like to hear, rather than a discussion of all of the many ethnic/religious groups you categorized, what with Catherine’s post focusing on gender industry/office/conference politics.

    And Toni, what are the odds of being able to schedule Brian for some quality time with Larissa Grunig? 😉

  6. Heather, Brian, Toni and Suzy,

    Thanks for your comments and observations – all of which could send us off on other absorbing tangents – but I suppose the main point that I was trying to get to in my post was that as a ‘segment of public relations practitioners’ (not women, men, Kiwis, Bulgarians etc..) we should be trying to change the way that we (public relations practitioners) are perceived. That may mean that along the way we have to change the attitudes and perceptions attributed to the various people that make up our ‘segment’ – which could cover all, some or none of Brian’s fairly extensive list. The example I gave in the post concerned the growing number of women within our practitioner segment because the ‘older’ attitude described by Toni in his comment still pervades current thinking and was very much in evidence at the events I mentioned. This attitude is to the detriment of women, yes – but it is also to the considerable detriment of the public relations profession *as a whole*, which is why in changing attitudes to public relations, we may first have to change many others along the way (which in my view is all to the social-good-of-PR anyway and wouldn’t just cover women). I suppose I got particularly mad because women’s participation in public relations was being held up as a valid reason for writing off the public relations function. If I was a man, I would be just as cross about my job being written off in this way. As a public relations practitioner, I was furious!

    The interesting thing about categorising is that we rarely categorise ourselves – others do that for us. As an individual practitioner I am entirely comfortable with my ability to do the job, to be the lion not the donkey (if I have correctly understood the animal roles assigned in Heather’s recent post) and I don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. But if my ‘boss’ or my peers or anyone else who might wish to contribute creates a false perception resulting from their rather limited view that because I am female both my role and ability are somehow in question, then we all have a problem. Things get worse when, as was the case with the research, increased female participation is held up as a reason to deliberately undermine a profession in order to diminish its power or role. That type of perception engineering affects the way all the lions in the pride are regarded – as well as the outcome of a successful hunt.

  7. Brian,

    Thanks for putting the old man-woman thing into some perspective. I’ve been teaching in Bulgaria this weekend – which in UK we think of as a former communist country or Eastern Europe. I now gather it is a former socialist country and the opinion here seems to be that it is a country in south-east Europe.

    Bulgaria, like many other countries in this region now belongs to the EU. As is the UK, although many Brits wish we didn’t and still refer to the “continent” as Europe. Maybe they think we still have an Empire!!

    Anyway, yesterday we looked at persuasion and the main thing that comes out of such a reflection is that it is far too simplistic to try to influence anyone on the basis of stereotypes. Our our attitudes, opinions and behavioural reactions cannot be reduced to a simple recipe.

    So the need for PR to help organisations engage with individuals becomes more and more important as society has become more pluralistic (as per Moloney’s observations) and complex (as Murphy’s work).

    The old mass media approaches based on segmenting into clear stereotypical groups is a very blunt instrument. Let alone the “traditional” PR practice of spamming a single release to all media regardless of what might interest the receiver.

    I suppose from the “women in PR” perspective, perhaps we need to stop categorising ourselves and prove to our bosses (regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, etc etc) that we can do the job.

    And, Toni – I’ve never met a male chauvenist pig that couldn’t be housetrained!!

  8. Re Toniu’s words >I have waited some days to comment, hoping others (particularly.. males) would do so.<

    I might have, if I’d looked at PR Conversations earlier.

    Tonight, as I read this set of PR Conversations messages with my good eye I concurrently listened to United States television — we get a lot of it in Canada — telecasting on the Public Broadcasting Corporation station bios of John McCain and Barrack Obama.

    In the United States of America there’s either an election going on, or the preparation for one. (Is the campaigning part of the election, or just the casting of votes?)

    Apparently a big deal a few weeks ago was first black president cf first woman president.

    Now the big deal is first black president cf first woman vice-president.

    There is no black candidate for presidxdent, of course, but Americans are generally too stupid to notice.

    Leaving aside Ralph Nader, there’s an old white man, and there’s a half-white Hawaiian son of a white Kansas mother, born and raised in the state of Hawaii, mostly raised by his maternal grandmother, who also happens to be white.

    Sounds like genetics and culture add up to more that 50 percent on the non-white side of the ledger.

    Caribou Barbie is quite a character — there cdertainly are not a lot of women who are either black or Democrats or both who think that the moosehunter represents them, just because she’s not a man.

    Apparently there’s a lot of Republican white woman who don’t suport the governor, too.

    Anyway, since this week we’re making a big deal about owmn in PR, can I expect next week to see a set of mesages about black people in PR?

    I remember a few years ago reading about the problem of categorizing people in the USA who speak Spanish. Some people thought they should be called Hispanics, but other people thought that their land of origination (I just made up this phrase, but you probably get what I mean) should describe them, making for a lot more categories, including Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republican, and thyen a whole list of central and south American origins, from Belizian to Argentinian.

    There is, also, the question of how many generation’s residency causes the “He’s a Mexican” to change to “He’s an American.) Black seems to stay Black for generations except that it’s turned into African American, regardless of how many generations, and how many continents, are between someone’s current body and the body of the last relative that actually lived in Africa. Barrack at least knows what African country his father came from and returned to.

    Of course, everyone in North America is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

    So, is the chart coming?

    We can list PR men and PR Women in the first two columns, but then we need columns for white and black.


    Unless the white column should be replaced by United Kingdomite, French person, Italian, German, Austrian,…

    Whoops — I’m showing my ignorance. Help, please.

    Can we count everyone born in, or a couple of generations away from living in, what’s now the European Union as simply “European?” I guess there should be European Man and European Woman, assuming man and woman are allowed and we don’t need to sale European Male and European Female.

    Now I’m holding my head — what about gender preference? I know a few homosexual men in PR, and they probably don’t count in the tradition Man category that seems to be set up in opposition to Women. I may know some homosexual women in PR too, but none have ever told me they are, so I can’t say for sure.

    If we have these columns, how do we handle the Asians, so to speak?

    I was teaching photogaphy over the weekend and, speaking in broad strokes, described Japanese engineers using certain words. But I’m clueless about how to describe Chinese engineers in broad strokes. Same with Chinese engineers.

    What happens when a Chinese PR person moves from China?

    Do they stay in the man or woman column, because they are, and then fit into a “person of color” category because they are not white, or do they get a check mark in a Chnese woman column?

    Back when I worked for Burson Marsteller, we shuffled a couple of people — all women I think, but there might have been a man I never met — between Hong Kong and Vancouver.

    CErtainly we can’t put all the Asian-Americans in one category, as distinct from White-Americans and Black-Americans, can we? We’d need Japanese-American, Korean-American, Chinese-American, plus more.

    And what happens when a PR person is one of those Jamaicans or Trinidadians that people back home call Chinese? They get a man or woman mark, of course, but do they fit under Chinese, or Trnidadian, or get on check mark for each.

    Now, as I watch the US election, I see that, just like Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran, the country has religious fanatics running things.

    So when, at meetings and conferences and assorted other getherings where people stand up on their hind feet and complain in one way or another that there are too many women or not enough women or women are getting all the good jobs (look at appointments at over $150,000us over the past five years) or women don’t get paid enough… do these people standing int he spotlight, spouting, include stats on haw many Jews, Christians, Muslims (What happened to Moslems?)Buddists, and so on?

    I think the owner of the second PR firm I worked at wasn’t jewish, but the number two man there was, and so were most of our clients.

    That, or course, raises the question of how can you tell if a company (our clients were companies) is Jewish. The answer is that you know you can’t reach anyone at the top on Jewish holidays, you work for free on charity campaigns the clients care about that include education in Israel and old folks homes for Jewish people.

    That boss, incidentally, was a woman.

    Someone might make another chart — top electd and appointed officials at PR associations around the world over the past decade. How many men, how many women.

    To get you started, this year’s elected and appointed top people at IABC are both woman, but last year the top elected person was a man and the year before that a woman.

    Several recent years of CPRS elected “leaders” were woman, and then a man last year. (but the top paid official is a woman)

    SO, FEEL FREE TO CATEGORIZE, folks, just make the categories fair and accurate and comprehensive.

    Time for bed.

    Good night.


  9. I have waited some days to comment, hoping others (particularly.. males) would do so.

    I believe that today I am an unabashed believer in the superior attitudes of the feminine gender in empathy, understanding, curiosity for relationships as much as I often realise that women professionals tend to ‘mirror their market’ (in the high ranks of organizations, mostly men) and therefore often defeat their own purpose.

    If we males have a prejudice to overcome (and amny undoubtedly do, whatever they say…)then women professionals of success are often much more antifeminists than even the worst machos.

    I wasn’t always like this.

    As Anna Adriani, today chief of global external relations for excellent Illy coffee company and one of Italy’s best public relators, said to a journalist recently (fortunately without citing the culprit…): quote my boss (she worked for me in the eighties) used to tell me that the reason why pr was not legitimized at the time was because there are too many women in the profession and our male dominated management boards would not take us seriously. Also, he added, as there is no ‘barrier to entry’ into public relations practice, women, who are generally less scholarized, find an easier entry. unquote

    Of course today I shudder (but not entirely disagreeing..only embarassed by my political incorrectness..)at those statements I made more than twenty years ago.

    Ultimately, it was Larissa Grunig who really gave me a wake up call a few years ago. We, the four of us (larissa, jim, my partner in life simona and myself) were dining at jim’s club in dc after I had had a guest lecture with their Maryland students and also visited their house. I asked ‘what are all those photos, cloth, ceramic, rubber pigs lying around the house?’.

    Laurie explained that she had so convinced friends, family and students that jim was a chauvinist pig that they began to bring to the grunigs all sorts of pigs from all over the world.

    Quite a collection.

    So simona said something like ‘what? jim a chauvinist pig? but you surely don’t know toni well enough…’, and that started it all…

    Laurie took me through an intensive inquisition and finally concluded that, yes, I was worse than jim…

    One cannot imagine the wrenching I went through and the lesson I learned. Also, I must add that this incident also led me to understand the whole concept of diversity and how relevant this is for our profession. A concept which has effectively guided me since in my studies, teachings and practice.

    This comment adds little to the post, but some insight on how we react, recall and move forward whichever the age…..

  10. The only discussion at Euprera that I heard which touched on gender issues related to a presentation on resarch among freelance practitioners in Germany. It seems that this career option in PR for women is increasingly popular and satisfying. The presenters also reflected that men more than women opt to become freelance with intentions of starting a business (rather than just working for themselves).

    I supervised a PR dissertation undergraduate a couple of years ago who researched the impact of feminisation of PR in the motor industry (primarily media relations). She found that women were increasingly employed in the events organisation side rather than the technical aspects (by which I mean automotive technical).

    Most of the females reported overtly that they hadn’t come across any barriers, but with greater exploration, it appeared there were more subtle aspects at work.

    For example, when a female took over from a male manager, the job function was deemed to no longer warrant secretarial support.

    Although I have noted an increasing number of females becoming heads of department, this seems to have also accompanied a down-grading of PR functions to report to marketing directors.

    The research that my undergraduate undertook was interesting in that it seemed women had not yet positioned themselves as equals and did accept the subtle (and not so subtle) barriers in order to gain promotion.

    I’m afraid though that I do agree with the view that we need to ensure more gender balance in PR rather than the function becoming a female only ghetto. This needs to start at Universities – marketing and business courses are much more equal in female:male ratios in my experience than the PR ones.

    With industries such as automotive, I believe the Universities and professional bodies should be promoting PR as a more strategic, business-minded course to young men considering their degree options. But then the courses – and the profession – have to support this and not continue to focus on technical event management and writing skills.

    I think rather than just speak up for ourselves, women in PR need to walk the talk – and manage our own reputations (cobblers’ children and all that). Personally, I’ve never found myself treated as a PR Bunny and believe that if you don’t quack like a duck, you won’t be treated like one (if you excuse the mixing of animals).

  11. You are right to accuse women of not standing up for equality in language. Women are far too quick to join sides with the boys and attack their own gender, but the brainwashing western women undergo to see femininity and vulnerability as weaknesses rather than the truth – which is that they are our greatest strengths – has not only fueled inequality in business, but also within relationships. The day that women allow men to open a door for them and say ‘thank you’ will be the day that we also recognise that respect is not the same as subservience, and perhaps finally honour our own sex by speaking out against prejudice and inequality of all kinds.

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