Recap of Lead On! 2019 women in communication conference

We all know the statistic: The makeup of the public relations industry is more than 70% women; yet, just 20% occupy senior-level leadership positions in agencies or corporate communications departments.

What can we do to improve this? A two-day workshop organized by the Center for PR strived to propose innovative solutions to address the gender disparity. The 2019 Lead On! Women in Communications Leadership Forum offered unique, hands-on workshops providing skills and tools for women who will be future leaders of the PR industry. 

From the “Suite Success: Women in the C-Suite” panel to Lisa Gates’ session “Negotiate What You Deserve,” the forum offered a variety of topics with valuable takeaways women can utilize in the workplace. Here are some of the highlights from the two days:

To set the tone, Tina McCorkindale (Ph.D., APR, President of the Institute for Public Relations) presented preliminary findings from a new quantitative survey of the PR and communications industry. Among those findings were that 50% of professionals say they have experienced discrimination based on gender.

According to McCorkindale, overall many respondents said they feel like a “boys club” still exists. Among the recommendations from the survey’s respondents are that organizational policies should be reviewed regularly to ensure that both sexes are granted equal opportunities; and while classes about unconscious bias are beneficial, companies need to hold ongoing programming rather than just one-off training sessions.

The “Suite Success: Women in the C-Suite” panel provided insight from three Los Angeles area professionals. CPR board member Heather Rim (AECOM) suggested, “I was advised to say ‘yes’ to everything, and it is okay, as long as you remember to add, ‘We’ll need to hire more people/to get more budget,’ or ‘If you’ll give me a promotion’.”

Judy Brown (Amgen) advised: “Build great teams around you, engage and encourage resilience to walk through the fires...Be your authentic self, and make your team feel comfortable being their authentic selves.”

Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire (CEO, 2020 Women on Boards) discussed the importance of companies and non-profits having women on their boards. Berkhemer-Credaire led the drive for new legislation in California that requires publicly traded companies headquartered in the state to include at least one woman on their boards of directors. She claimed that women’s ways of thinking are improving the work of boards and bringing value that not have existed in corporate board rooms. 

“A picture of only male corporate boards should be anachronistic, something that would not be acceptable anymore,” she said.

CPR board member Cathy Calhoun (Weber Shandwick) described the confidence gap between men and women: Men overestimate their abilities, women under-estimate their abilities. Calhoun encouraged attendees to be “intentional”: “Make sure you act proactively in everything you do.” 

Lisa Gates (Story Happens Here) taught the art of negotiating “what you deserve.” Gates led attendees in preparing their “tell me about yourself” script and “Superpower Statements” they can use in preparing for performance reviews and negotiating raises. 

Liz Fosslien (Humu) concluded the session with a discussion from her book “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.” She provided suggestions regarding giving and receiving honest feedback and feeling good about it. 

Fosslien left the attendees with two memorable lines: “We don’t want to know we can survive in a space; we want to know we can thrive;” and “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.”

Nirit Weiss-Blatt, Ph.D., is a visiting research fellow at USC Annenberg who has worked as a tech journalist and in tech PR in Israel.