PR pros mark International Women’s Day

The industry still has work to do to combat discrimination and close the pay gap. Here’s what some leaders are doing to spotlight the contributions of women in communications.


For International Women’s Day, many organizations are looking to celebrate the work of their female colleagues—and the PR industry is a focal point.

For communicators and the groups they work for, female empowerment can strike close to home. Although women outnumber men in PR roles in the U.S., men are still more likely to draw higher salaries than women.

Kimberly Eberl, owner of The Motion Agency in Chicago, says the pay gap is due to a disparity in who gets promoted.

“Gender parity in the PR and communication space really is in management,” she says. “I used to work at other agencies—and even in my current agency—there is [and would be] a plethora of female PR practitioners and communications professionals. But then as people rise through the ranks and go through their careers, some women don’t always have a leadership stake.”

Eberl points to a telltale sign.

“It’s always a headline when there are women in management, like someone has made it that has never been there before in this certain organization,” she explains. Though happy that these successes are celebrated, she hopes one day they’ll be less newsworthy.

For Heather Whaling, president of Geben Communication, PR agencies and brand-side teams must speak up about gender equality to compete for top talent and survive in the modern marketplace.

“Especially as you look at this generation of employees, there is a desire to work for places where there’s an alignment between values and finances,” Whaling says.

How to boost women leaders

For organizations seeking to help women rise through the ranks, crucial steps can help. For example, many organizations have created internal resource groups so colleagues can turn to each other for support.

Eberl explains, “If I’m a female in an organization that thinks that this is an important issue, I could get together with other women and talk about different learning and development sessions that we could do to help our career growth.”

She says this kind of effort inspired her to create an event for International Women’s Day that would feature 20 female leaders on a panel to talk about lessons from their careers.

What can these conversations cover that will help women find more influence in their organization?

Eberl hopes that the panelists will share pivotal moments from their careers, such as a new job or how, in Eberl’s case, getting fired from a job helped launch her career. She says these stories can provide inspiration.

However, she also wants to talk about hard industry facts. What are the actual stats behind women in the industry, their power within an organization and more? For Eberl, knowledge is power, and there is still some educating to do around key issues.

She also wants to talk about industry challenges. PR and communications professionals work with all kinds of industries, from manufacturing to health care, and each one has a slightly different set of biases and challenges to overcome.

Finally, she adds that relevant anecdotes and career advice make a major difference. “Is there a workplace example where someone broke through the glass ceiling or had a gender stereotype that they felt?” she says. “Or maybe they felt their office was really good at promoting other female leaders.”

For Eberl, these conversations will help provide answers for leaders looking to drive change.

Why the conversation matters

Eberl says it’s important to think about female leadership because of the gaps that still exist in the industry—some more obvious than others.

She saw there weren’t many independent agencies in Chicago, and they weren’t very large. “I don’t lead with gender as a business owner, and I don’t want to,” she says, “but what is it that we as women are doing to hinder our marketability, our success, our opportunities?”

The PR industry has gotten more serious about diversity and inclusion efforts, in part because the practice has proven to deliver better work, but also because diverse viewpoints can catch mistakes before they go out to clients.

Lisa Ross, chief operating officer in the U.S for Edelman, puts the risk and reward this way: “In a world that is changing so quickly in front of us, I think we owe it to our clients to have a diverse point of view and to have an informed point of view that includes input from a lot of different people.”

Meredith L. Eaton, director of North America for Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, agrees.

“Diversifying opportunities to bring in more female voices is a must,” she says. “Finding female champions who have strong opinions can help bring a much-needed perspective to today’s issues. Oftentimes, though, they may just not have a platform to share those opinions. PR pros can help provide that.”

Eaton adds that for agencies, investing in and promoting female talent could be a deciding factor in winning new business.

“VC firms are choosing to invest in female founders,” she says, “and some are even withholding investments from companies who don’t have enough female representation on their boards. Should PR firms go as far to not work with clients who don’t have women leadership?”

The value of PR

For Whaling, caring about gender equality starts with the PR internship and entry-level position and comes down to how the industry values its work.

Her argument is that undervaluing the work of pros getting their start in the industry can help lead to the inequity the industry sees down the road.

“I think we have a responsibility to lift up the work of these young women in the early stages of their career and pay them for the value that they’re contributing,” she says. She adds that failing to offer a fair wage will decrease the diversity of applicants for your position.

“When you’re paying people less than what they are worth or what they need from a fair wage standpoint, you’re getting a very homogenous pool of talent to choose from,” she says.

Meaningful actions

What proactive steps can your organization take around International Women’s Day or Women’s History Month?

Apart from creating resource groups for employees at your organization, Eberl recommends surveying your staff to find out what they want. Questions include:

  • “What are some big ways that they feel?”
  • “What do they want to have as far as the conversation?”
  • “What would benefit them?”

For Whaling, this isn’t a conversation PR pros should have only when March rolls around.

“I think it should be a yearlong conversation,” she says. “The best way to celebrate International Women’s Day is to hire women, pay them what they’re worth and invest in their professional development.”

That could also mean providing paid family leave and offering flexible schedules to parents with children living at home. “I think looking at those workplace policies and adjusting them where needed a really great way to invest in the development and retention of women in the workforce, especially in this industry that is so dominated by women,” Whaling says.

Advice for future leaders

The pearls of wisdom from these women entrepreneurs and industry leaders?

“Surround yourself with other ambitious women who share your values,” says Whaling. “Both pieces of that are really important. That for me has been really helpful as I’ve grown the business and I have a son, and I have this wonderful group of women who also own businesses and have young children. It’s been really helpful to have a group that you can rely on when you’re struggling with something or who can offer some encouragement.”

“The other piece of advice I would give, especially to younger women, is: Think about what your goals look like, and then build a plan to get there,” Whaling adds. “And it’s OK if it doesn’t match what society says you should be doing.”

For her, living up to societal pressures isn’t worth the heartache for women in the industry. “There’s a lot of talk about, ‘Can women have it all?’ and I think they can—but they have to define what their version of all is,” she says.

For Eberl, it’s essential to recommit every day “to not be afraid of failure.” When trying something new and innovating, falling flat is part of the equation. “It might bomb,” she says. “It might be a dismal failure, but why not? Why not try? Why not stick your neck out?”

She also highly recommends finding a mentor to be your guide throughout your career. “At this point, I have owned an agency for 14 years and have a couple of mentors,” she says, “and I wish I did that early in my career.”



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