When Catherine Bolton spoke at Lehigh University several years ago, she found herself facing a student audience that was entirely female—with the exception of one man.
Bolton, who was then president and COO of the Public Relations Society of America, called for questions afterward. The man raised his hand.
“He asked me, ‘I’m a male; is that going to hurt my chances of being in public relations?’” said Bolton, who is now a principal in River Rock Communications in northeast Pennsylvania.
That anyone could seriously pose the question suggests just how much the profession has changed since 1970, when only 27 percent of practitioners were women. Today that figure has grown to nearly 85 percent, said Brenda Wrigley, chair of the public relations department at Syracuse University.
Within the Public Relations Society of America, 73 percent of the membership is female, a spokesman said. The society includes 21,000 public relations and communications professionals nationwide, along with an affiliated student branch.
Diversity issues remain
Although those numbers may be encouraging for women, top management remains 80 percent male, said Wrigley, who has studied gender issues in the PR field. Minorities are still underrepresented. As in the workforce at large, women in PR tend to earn less than men do, she said.
“Any time a profession becomes feminized, salaries tend to become depressed and the status of the profession tends to go down,” Wrigley said, citing nursing as another example.
It’s not just PR. Pay inequality was highlighted recently by a recent Government Accountability Office report finding that female managers earned just 81 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts in 2007, compared with 79 cents in 2000.
Do women’s skills mesh well with PR?
In interviews and a forum on MyRagan.com, women suggested a number of reasons for this, while a few said they hadn’t noticed such a trend. Some suggested that women tended to be more skilled, others sought clues more intrinsic to females.
“I believe that women are more persuasive then men and can easily approach males and females easier than men can,” one commenter stated. “Something about women and their nurturing side makes people trust their judgments more.”
A male commenter objected to posted suggestions that women predominate in the field because more of them write well: “I think the individuals who commented on this forum implying women are better writers than men should absolutely be ashamed of themselves. What a horrible stereotype.”
In any case, the numbers bear out the impressions people get at PR conferences. Wrigley said women flock to PR because the entry-level skills match well with what they earn in educational areas with large representation of women, such as the humanities. Women have tended to be good at writing, presentation, event planning, and technician skills, she added.
|Why are there so many women in PR? CEO Mark Ragan asks three vice presidents for their thoughts.
Top management still largely male
Several commenters in the MyRagan forum noted the pay disparities. But Debbie Mason, president of the Florida-based Strategists, Inc., which provides consulting in public relations and other areas, says she sees no sign of bias nowadays, because people already know she is a woman when they seek her services.
Previously she worked in a senior executive position reporting to the CEO in the corporate world, so she had established herself interacting with major figures in her company and other firms, she said. There she earned substantially less than her male peers.
“On the other hand,” Mason said, “I would have to say I tended to be at least a decade younger than everybody else sitting around the senior management table. So how much of it was reflective of age and experience and how much of it was gender, in my personal situation, I would find it hard to split that fairly.”
Another factor may play into the underrepresentation of women at the top, says Bolton. Those who make it to the top often must be keenly ambitious, and many of her students want a balance of career and family.
“Woman seem to have a good sense of knowing what is important to them, and now that we can have it all, we can choose not to,” she said.
Rising in the ranks
Others note that women are beginning to rise into top ranks. Caroline Hoenk, vice president at Insidedge in Chicago, has a nontraditional background, having earned a law degree at Notre Dame. She was drawn to PR after taking a course in crisis management.
“I think that that trend—if I look at my office structure—is starting to change, and we are starting to see more senior women in leadership roles,” she said.
There is a long history of women involved in what could be considered PR, according to Suzannah A. Patterson of Valdosta State University. In a study published in last winter’s Public Relations Journal, a quarterly research journal of PRSA, she cited women such as Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Annie Oakley and Susan B. Anthony. They employed PR tactics to promote causes including abolition and suffrage, and Carrie Nation famously raised support for the temperance movement by busting up saloons.
“Using her best promotional and fundraising skills,” Patterson writes, “she financed her saloon-smashing campaign by selling tiny, hand-carved wooden replicas of her famous hatchet.”
A turnabout? Sort of
Today, some firms and recruiters are beginning to call for more men in the field, Wrigley said. Ironically, she said, no one in the old days used to complain that there weren’t enough women in the profession. And there is a need to think beyond simply gender diversity in a field with comparatively few blacks and Latinos.
This sort of thing creates opportunities for Veronica Rodriguez, senior media relations manager at the Vidal Partnership, which helps clients such as JCPenney to reach the Hispanic community.
“It has given us an opportunity to help them integrate multiculturalism even down to the designs they pick,” she said.