The gender gap is affecting the public relations industry.
On Wednesday, the MSLGGroup—the world’s fifth-largest public relations agency—agreed to a $2.9 million settlement in a lawsuit in which more than 100 staffers alleged that the company had practiced gender discrimination.
Though the agency did not admit to wrongdoing, employees claimed that women were paid and promoted less than men and subject to discriminatory reassignments, demotions and firings.
The pay gap between women and men in public relations is no secret. A 2015 survey of 1,002 U.S. communication professionals by PR Week and recruitment firm Bloom, Gross & Associates revealed that the median salary for PR pros is $81,000 for women and $127,500 for men.
In public relations, keeping women from the top will only keep agencies from the top.
There’s a reason why, in his 2001 autobiography, Bloomberg LP’s founder, Mike Bloomberg, admitted that he hoped his competitors practiced discrimination: He believed it gave his firm a competitive edge.
In his 2005 book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki explained the reason behind this belief. “The more similar [people] are, the more similar the ideas they appreciate will be…By contrast, if they are diverse, the chances that at least someone will take a gamble on a radical or unlikely idea obviously increases.”
Surowiecki said that diversity also allows a group to better distinguish good ideas from bad ideas, because “homogenous groups, particularly small ones, are often victims of what the psychologist Irving Janis called ‘groupthink.'” He further explained:
[They] become more cohesive more easily than diverse groups, and as they become more cohesive they also become more dependent on the group, more insulated from outside opinions.
For communicators, coming up with disruptive ideas isn’t merely helpful; It’s the very heart of what we do.
Retrograde employment practices also hurt agencies in other ways. Karen Bloom, principal of Bloom, Gross & Associates, has argued, “as the war for talent intensifies, it would be in companies’ best interests—more than ever—to ensure wage equality between men and women. This is exactly the sort of thing that can establish a company as an employer of choice.”
PR agencies that hold women back expose themselves to reputational and monetary damages from lawsuits. They’re also likely to have less creative teams and have a harder time attracting and retaining superstars.
In the communications industry, discrimination isn’t just wrong. It’s an extraordinarily foolish business practice.
Kara Alaimo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of PR at Hofstra University. A former communicator at the U.N. and in the Obama administration, she is writing a book about global PR, to be published by Routledge. Follow her on Twitter: @karaalaimo.