Achieving gender parity in public relations

The World Economic Forum (WEF) annually tracks the progress of 149 countries toward gender parity on four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The bad news is the WEF 2018 Global Gender Gap Report predicts most of us won’t see economic parity based on gender in our lifetimes. The earliest predicted adopter is Western Europe, and that’s not supposed to happen for another 61 years.  

According to the WEF, most companies still see a gender gap with women being significantly underrepresented in the corporate pipeline, and the public relations industry is no exception. In 2016, the Global Women in PR study revealed that although two-thirds of the global PR industry are women, 78% of the CEOs in the top 30 PR agencies worldwide are men and they occupy 62% of seats at the PR boardroom table.  

To study gender and leadership in public relations, the Institute for Public Relations embarked on a two-phase study with KPMG. The final report will create a roadmap of experiences and actions that individuals and organizations can adopt and support to grow equal leadership in public relations. The focus of the report is on equity and parity.  

Based on the results of the first phase of the study, my co-authors, Rebecca Rickert (Prudential) and Megan Dubrowski (KPMG), and I developed calls-to-action to help our industry improve (more to come with the publication of the second phase):  

1. Gender equality is not just for women but for men too.

Both men and women should work together to fight for equality for all individuals in our field, including transgender professionals. Equality benefits everyone. A 2019 LeanIn.Org survey found 60% of male managers said they are uncomfortable doing workplace activities such as mentoring, socializing or having one-on-one meetings with women. This perception is extremely detrimental to our industry and to the career path of future leaders.  

2. Potential pay gaps must be addressed now.

Only 15% of our respondents said there was a program to assess potential pay gaps based on gender (38% were not sure) at their organizations. Half said they have experienced pay discrimination based on gender.  

3. Leaders must prioritize action. 

Sixty percent of respondents have seen gender bias in their organizations. Change starts at the top, and leaders must be intentional. Leaders must ensure their boards reflect the diversity they seek to embed. Scrutinizing internal practices to ensure equity in hiring and promotion decisions is critical as is being transparent. Companies must also mitigate biases and increase cultural competency.  

4. Review policies and make organizational change. 

While 92% of respondents said their organization offers maternity leave, only 56% offer paternity leave. Family leave policies are critical for both men and women. Some respondents said they had been penalized in their promotion trajectory after returning from leave — in fact, 46% said any type of leave would hurt their careers. Nearly all respondents said flex work arrangements are important to them. Policies should be enacted consistently.  

5. Take care of yours and other’s careers.

Twenty percent of respondents said they have never had a mentor, which is surprising considering how critical mentors and sponsors are to success. Forty percent said their mentor helped them receive a job promotion. Organizations should encourage their employees to find a mentor or sponsor to help guide their careers. My career success has been helped by the support of my mentors and sponsors, most of them are men.  

Gender parity is just one area where our industry needs improvement. It’s important to note that gender should not be considered in isolation. Rather, it’s the intersectionality of individuals and groups — the interconnectdness of race, gender, status, etc. Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion is critical for all marginalized groups, including people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. The public relations industry needs to do better, and we have an obligation as a profession that represents both internal and external stakeholders.  

Additionally, achieving equality can’t be a one-off campaign. Instead, companies’ commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) must be embedded throughout the organization and championed at the top. Until there is parity across the board, we must continue to challenge the status quo for change.  


To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.