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Liz Bridgen: The Lady Vanishes - the missing women of public relations

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Published: 28/04/16

On Friday 29 April, Liz Bridgen, senior lecturer in public relations, is speaking at the annual PR The Future: We Are The Future conference. Here, she talks about the gender gap in PR and the 'missing women' of the industry.

Why are there so few women at senior levels in public relations?

The figures suggest that while around 70% of public relations practitioners are women, only 30% ever make it to management level.  The loss of talent has been ringing alarm bells globally for the last three decades – but with little effect.

There have been numerous attempts to explain – or guess - the reason for women’s under-representation in senior public relations roles but, oddly enough, very little of the published research actually talks to the women who leave.  And this is something that I'm trying to put right with my latest project which talks to women who give up their public relations careers to try and find out why they leave - and where they go.

While academic writing acknowledges that the issue of women’s absence from senior level public relations roles is complex, ‘professional’ research tends to put the blame squarely onto women being unwilling or unable to combine a job and motherhood. This writing thus falls into the ‘assumption trap’ where gender and childrearing (rather than society) are seen to be the problem. For instance, a report commissioned by the  industry body for public relations, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) by Hanson Research suggested that women were daunted by leaving the ‘family bubble’ and this could hinder their return to work after maternity leave – something which academic research has shown not to be the case. 

As a result of such assumptions, career advice for women with families tends to focus on practical solutions to what appears to be a solvable ‘problem’. Flexible and remote working and sympathetic mentors are seen as the solution, with pressure put on employers to provide and support these. The CIPR has put together a number of guides designed to help women navigate areas such as returning to work after maternity leave and flexible working. While the advice given in these publications is sensible, they can potentially mask a more serious problem, as I’ll explain below.

Unfortunately, however good the intention, flexible working can cause women to be side-lined in the workplace as they cannot be involved in those after-work debates or ‘water cooler’ discussions where decisions are made and networks built – simply because their working schedule doesn't allow it. When working reduced hours, or based largely at home, women are removed from the power structures of the office, and it's harder to complete with their 'always in the office' peers.  Research from career occupations such as science, medicine and management demonstrates that women who work flexibly (largely due to caring commitments) aren’t able to jump on a plane at a moments’ notice or noticeably work long hours in the office  – and this takes them away from the type of work that gets them noticed, however good their standard of work might be.  All this then leads to women in today's meritocratic workplace being side-lined or passed over for promotion.

My research, which took the form of a series of in-depth interviews with British women who left public relations before or shortly after reaching management level, suggested that many women moved into PR by accident and as a result moved away without any real guilt or consideration (this is an issue of there being no set skills or exams needed to be a public relations practitioner). Many women who leave public relations go into equally (or more) fulfilling roles and some move into management level but in other occupations.

While this finding was fairly positive, the other findings pointed  to a deeper problem in the public relations industry and threw light on why women leave the career to which they've devoted a decade or more (spoiler - none involve women wanting to spend more time with their children).

1.    Women thought that public relations work, even at senior level, was trivial, meaningless and dull. This was especially true if women had children or worked flexibly or part-time.

2.    The women found that peers, and those outside the industry in particular, did not take them seriously and this caused the women to suffer a lack of self-belief in their own skills

3.    There was a lack of role models and mentors, and those which did exist often did not represent the path that women wanted to take. 

My research found that the overriding reason for women leaving public relations was because they saw a lack of meaning in the work that they were permitted to carry out. Some felt that they were unable to take part in the ‘meaningful’ work as childcare restrictions meant that they were not considered (or felt unable to take up) the ‘exciting’ projects, while others felt excluded by the ‘bitchiness’ in the workplace and the triviality of commercial public relations work. 

Overall, the interviewees believed that they were pushed, rather than pulled, into leaving public relations due to being side-lined into non-career roles, thus removing them from relevant and career-enhancing power networks - and from the exciting and interesting work which they craved.

The author:

"Around 70% of public relations practitioners are women, only 30% ever make it to management level. The loss of talent has been ringing alarm bells globally for the last three decades – but with little effect."