Dina Mostovaya is a global strategy & cultural communications consultant with over 15 years of experience and the founder of Madrid-based consulting firm Mindset Consulting.
In recent years, female business leaders have made headways in corporate leadership. Companies like Oracle, Burberry, Citigroup and Hershey’s, have appointed a woman as a CEO. As a result, they have become high-profile ambassadors for the case of narrowing the gender gap, especially in the upper echelons of executive management.
Despite this progress, there is a long way to go. According to Catalyst, only 8.2% of S&P 500 firms are run by women, and the World Economic Forum indicates that it could take up to 131 years to attain gender parity.
When it comes to the public relations industry, male-female inequality has a distinct twist. As per Global Women in PR Annual Index, two-thirds of the sector’s workforce are women, but they only hold about 34% of top management positions.
Barriers holding PR women back
#1: Biases and stereotypes
A study by KPMG and the Institute for Public Relations revealed that there is a double bind when evaluating leadership styles. “Women and men said that perceptions sometimes differ when a leader is assertive; the behavior is more likely to be viewed as confrontational rather than decisive when exhibited by a female leader,” the report reads.
This quandary is based on long-standing biases. Kathy Osborne, Founder of Kamel PR, says that, “People have this misconception that gender bias and discrimination cannot exist in a field that has a majority female workforce. But the reality is that these issues are so deeply ingrained in our society, our corporate structure, and ourselves whether we realize it or not.”
So, even if it has been proven that companies with more women on their teams are 21% more likely to outperform the national industry median, there are firmly-entrenched beliefs that need to be challenged.
#2: Work-life choices: keep working or have children?
Eighty-nine percent of female PR employees said that childcare and household responsibilities are the largest barriers they face to advancing to a more senior position. In line with this, 75% of the professionals surveyed consider the lack of family friendly working policies an obstacle.
Even though the accelerated digital transition brought by the pandemic resulted in more adaptable schedules and increased fluidity, there are challenges such as work-life balance and the continuity of career progression.
Maria MacDonald, the founder of Cord Comms Agency, worries about how this will keep affecting women who have professional ambitions. “Our careers take a toll with maternity leave and childcare, and we drop back compared to male peers who have a more stable career path without pausing,” she says.
GWPR’s study found that 53% of female PR professionals have experienced discrimination in the workplace. For 27% of them, gender has been the deciding factor, with age (23%), pregnancy (13%), and returning from maternity leave (13%), also cited as sources of prejudice.
The solution: three ways to achieve gender parity in PR leadership positions
#1: Address unconscious biases and stereotypes
To level the playing field, companies need to ensure that everyone receives equal opportunities, and not to promote based on masculine traits — which convention and bias equate to being a successful leader.
However, the work of unlearning these patterns that rule our decision-making starts at home, where these stereotypes are often shaped. Maria MacDonald says, “It is important to avoid bias in our own families, with our children. Every child has to grow with the idea that they can become anyone they want in their professional life.”
By doing the inner work to identify our own biases, we are creating a more transparent corporate culture, one in which everyone, regardless of gender, feels safe to ask for what they need and motivated to keep growing.
#2: Create a community
As women who are in positions of influence, we need to create and join communities that propel fellow female colleagues to new heights.
Personally, I am fortunate to have been selected, in 2022, to be a part of GWPR’s Empower Programme, a unique cross-border initiative that aims to unshackle women’s potential and inspire them to become top-notch leaders in the PR industry. Through it, I gained very valuable insights and realized that if we support each other, there is no limit to what we can do.
#3: Be an example and support others
Two years ago, I had the experience of mentoring a young woman who was a PR manager and wanted to get her career to the next level. After a year, I noticed she was ready to launch her own PR agency. I both witnessed and supported her progress to where she is today — owning a PR firm that works with disruptive entrepreneurs worldwide.
This is living proof of how, by leading by example, we can create change one person at a time. For many professionals who are starting out, having someone that guides them can make the difference between developing their potential and stagnating.
With several leading PR agencies appointing a female CEO — including Weber Shandwick, BCW, Ketchum, and Hill+Knowlton Strategies — aspiring executives will now have more figures to look up to, and to remind them that it is possible to attain whatever they set their mind to.
Although we’ve made strides to address disparities in the PR sector, there is still a significant amount of work to be done. Leveling the scales requires continued effort and collective responsibility, and it needs to be seen as an issue that affects all employees, not only female ones.
Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary-General, noted that gender equality is “everyone’s responsibility,” and I wholeheartedly agree.
To create a workplace where both women and men can thrive, collaborate, and realize their full potential, we need to let go of the “us versus them” mentality, and remember that we are all on the same team. Prosperity and wealth increase when shared, and we can reach new heights by helping lift each other up.