By Katrina Olson
Last week we learned that, although women make up about 70% of the PR workforce, they hold only about 30% of the industry’s top positions, according to a study of 250 PR firms by The Holmes Report.
Here are a few more highlights:
- Of the 20 larger firms in the study—those with revenues of $100 million or more—25% are headed by at least one woman.
- Of 39 firms in the study, with revenue between $40 and 99 million, nine (23%) are run by women.
Looking at the top 10 PR firms, the study found women in leadership positions at high rates:
- Weber Shandwick has 13 out of 20 (65%) females in leadership positions.
- Havas has 4 out of 8 (50%).
- Fleishman Hillard has 12 out of 28, or 43%.
- The remaining “top 10” agencies range from 19% to 33%.
The only notable exception is Ogilvy—where none of its four top leadership positions are occupied by women.
If women hold 70% of jobs in PR, why don’t they hold 70% of the leadership positions?
Following are a few possible explanations for this gender gap in public relations firm’s C-Suites.
1. The strategies that work for men don’t work for women.
A study by Catalyst, The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? compared career advancement strategies used by women and men to determine if using the same strategies led to the same career outcomes and found that:
- Men benefited more from adopting proactive strategies.
- When women did all the things they have been told will help them get ahead—using the same tactics as men—they still advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.
- http://www.catalyst.org/system/files/The_Myth_of_the_Ideal_Worker_Does_Doing_the_Right_Things_Really _Get_Women_Ahead.pdf
The rules are different for an act as simple as talking. A 2012 study from Yale University (http://asq.sagepub.com/content/56/4/622.short) found that the total time spent talking positively affected men but not women. For example, when a man speaks up he’s considered powerful, but women are often criticized for speaking more than others.
2. Women appear to lose their aspiration and confidence after two years.
A five-year study by Bain and Company (http://www.bain.com/publications/articles/everyday-moments-of-truth.aspx) revealed that 43% of women aspire to top management positions in their first two years of work, compared to only 34% of men.
However, over time, women’s aspiration levels drop by more than 60% while men’s stayed the same. After two years, 34% of men still aspire to executive position while only 16% of women do. Correspondingly, females’ agreement with the statement “Have the confidence to reach top management” dropped from 27% to 13% after two years, while men’s agreement with this statement dropped by only 3%.
3. Women are less likely to ask for a promotion.
A PRWeek poll conducted in March 2015 asked female readers if they would be willing to ask for a promotion. Of the 289 respondents, more than 25% said they were either “not very willing” to ask or would rather set up their own company.
Forty-five percent of respondents said they would be “very willing” to ask, while only 27% said they would be “fairly willing.”
4. Women’s approach to leadership can work against them.
A 2014 study by VMA Group (http://www.vmagroup.com/news_and_community/events/view.php?id=12343) revealed that women tend to focus on relationships while men tend to put their energy into demonstrating results of their work. Further, women don’t call as much attention to their own achievements and are more likely to encounter backlash when they do.
5. Sexism still exists in the workplace.
The results of a 2014 Pew Research Center survey released in January 2015 reveal that 43% of respondents said women in top executive positions are held to higher standards than men. Pew surveyed 1,835 people, split evenly between the genders.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New York University and the University of Utah found that men with stay-at-home wives tend to hold negative views of working women.
Specifically, when men with stay-at-home wives were asked whether men alone should be responsible for providing household income, 57% of them said yes. That bias likely carries over into their interactions in the workplace.
Further, gendered behaviors have become mainstream with terms like “manterrupting” (women being interrupted or having their ideas shot down or taken by men) making their way into everyday language.
What’s the solution?
Approaching the issue from several different angles:
- Women can choose to be more aggressive, asking for promotions and perhaps adapting their leadership style.
- Men can be more aware of workplace gender bias and their own implicit bias.
- Companies can take responsibility for diversity by creating diversity committees or task forces, being accountable for diversity goals, and promoting a climate that explores where subtle prejudices and stereotypes may exist.
But mostly, it will just take time. After spending the past 10 years teaching PR classes to young men and women, I am very hopeful about the future. More than any generation before them, today’s young people (especially the men) appear to be much more accepting and open to women in leadership roles. They appear to be less threatened by “alpha females” and to carry less bias toward women in general. Or maybe they just feel outnumbered because they’re in the minority.
Time will tell.