I have to hand it to The Atlantic. First they provoke society by using their influential cover to wonder aloud: Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Now, they did it again by questioning what we’ve all thought, but never asked: Why Are There So Many Women in Public Relations?
I’ve never inquired because, frankly, I never thought anyone would care much about the answer. I was wrong – and the thousands of people who shared the article on Facebook in the first 24 hours after publication make that clear. Yes, it’s a great question, but perhaps I have an even more important one:
Why are there so many women in PR… and yet so few women at the top?
The article’s author, Olga Khazan, does an impressive job of getting to the allure of the industry for women:
• Research indicates women are more collaborative, social and prefer to work on teams
• Better pay and less competition than journalism… and less risk
The writer then adds another reason: “Still, those who were dedicated to the field thought it allowed them to rise to the top in a way that other professions don’t.” The article quotes a young manager at an agency saying how the industry’s female role models inspire her.
Yet data points to the fact that there may not be enough of those role models, particularly at top PR agencies. Despite industry estimates that women make up two-thirds of the industry’s workforce, a 2011 PRWeek story states: “Women still make up less than half of the executive committee roles at most large PR firms and only four women lead agencies with more than $100 million in global revenue.”
This headline from a 2013 PRWeek piece says it best: Name five female chief executives… no, we didn’t think you could because so few of the top PR agencies are led by them.
In PRWeek’s recently released “Power List 2014: Power principals” – 32 are men; 18 are women.
So the real question is, with all those reasons drawing women in to PR, why are there so few at the senior most levels? And doesn’t that make it all the more glaring that an industry so dominated by women has relatively few at the top?
At its core, the relative dearth of female leadership is likely not dissimilar from the rest of corporate America. One simple reason is that some of the industry’s leadership are not making fixing the issue a priority.
At Edelman, we’ve prioritized the challenge by creating our Global Women’s Executive Network (GWEN) to ensure women make up 50% of the firm’s leadership in five years. To meet the objective, we are focusing on policy, networking, recruiting, educating, collaborating and career planning for women at all levels across the network. In GWEN’s first three years, women in senior leadership roles has increased more than 20%.
The first comment to the article on The Atlantic’s website, reads “If it’s too galling for females to work in the female professions carved out by the patriarchy, they could always break out of the corral, and try their hand at a male-dominated one.”
True. Part of the long-term solution is to give women more options by encouraging teen girls to explore fields involving math and science. A senior female executive at Edelman recalls being told by her college professor as an Operations and Information Technology major that she was so social that he would expect someone like her to pursue marketing over IT. “Who wants to start a career in an anti-social industry?” she thought.
In the short term, however, it is important to recognize why the advancement of women is so necessary: Having more women in leadership positions leads to better client relationships, employee retention and improves the bottom line.
Just last week, the release of one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on women in leadership confirmed what other prior studies have shown: Companies that perform best financially have the greatest numbers of women in leadership roles.
That should be enough to inspire the entire PR industry… and just about every other one as well.
Who knows? Perhaps The Atlantic’s next provocative cover might read: “Why Are There So Many Women Leading Businesses?’
Gail Becker is Edelman’s president of strategic partnerships and global integration, and is the founding chair of Edelman’s Global Women’s Executive Network. She is based in L.A.