PR girl stereotype damages all women in PR

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Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Guest contributor Kay Seago looks behind the data to ask about the continuing gender pay gap in public relations.

Let’s face it, it can be easy to paint a picture of certain industries based on the traditional stereotyping of their workforces. From wolf-whistling builders to quiet librarians, it’s easy to get wrapped up in fabricated preconceptions. And it’s no different for the PR and communications industry.

With a ‘party profession’ stigma dating back to the early 90s, it’s not difficult to connect some of today’s attitudes towards PR with the flamboyant sitcom characters that once graced our screens. While highly entertaining, these expertly crafted eccentrics – such as Edina Monsoon and Samantha Jones – have left somewhat of a lasting impression, arguably affecting how seriously some PR professionals are taken.

Unfortunately, this stereotype is something I’ve become all too familiar with during my time in the industry, leading me to question whether this robust stigma of the ‘partying PR girl’ has in fact created a glass ceiling for women in communications?

Let’s start by looking at the numbers.

Valued at £13.8bn – up from £12.9bn in 2016, and with a workforce of 86,000 professionals, the UK’s PR and communications industry is booming. But, dig a little deeper and the figures lose their appeal. In an industry dominated by women, with females comprising 66 per cent of the workforce, it’s surprising to see the gender pay gap standing above the UK average at 21 per cent.

Perhaps even more concerning is that the gender pay gap has increased from 17.8 per cent in 2016. So why in a modern world does it seem that women are valued less than their male counterparts?

Discussing the pay gap in the PRCA’s ‘Communicating the Gender Pay Gap’ report, Francis Ingham, Director General of PRCA said: “the gender pay gap is a symptom and a cause of talent being such a pervasive and deep-rooted problem for our industry. Our inability to attract and keep the very best people is holding us back from achieving our potential.”

Of course, there are multiple reasons behind the pay gap, but certainly maternity leave, women in part-time work, and a business’s inability to provide flexible work are factors. But step away from societal expectations and instead consider the demobilising clichés young PR professionals are faced with.

Could it be that an ingrained sense of stereotype has inadvertently caused decline in female aspiration?

Interestingly, Chris Lewis, Founder and CEO of LEWIS noted in his book ‘Too Fast to Think’, that when interviewing candidates “the most common characteristics of male and female applicants is that men tended to have fewer skills, but more confidence, and the women were the other way around.”

So, is it then that the long-lasting stereotype has led to women losing confidence? And how can we, as an industry, work towards a solution?

Unfortunately, the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ has become almost embedded in working lives – the idea that you, as a professional, are in fact a fraud. A fake, a phoney, a con-artist even. It’s the notion that you’ve stumbled into a superior role and are doomed to be ‘outed’ as the imposter that you are. Yet, imposter syndrome isn’t exclusive to the communications industry. The technology sector is the only STEM field to see the proportion of women drop in the last 20 years, plummeting from 30 to 17% even though, similarly to PR, the tech industry is booming – growing four times faster than any other.

Therefore, as you can imagine, being a female working within technology PR can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. If it’s not internal voices (encouraged by decades of stereotyping) causing imposter syndrome, then it’s highly experienced clients boxing you off as simply the ‘comms girl’ that doesn’t really understand technology jargon. But times are changing, and we’re seeing women break down those borders to become much more than the partying-PR persona would have previously led you to believe.

Women in PR is one such initiative which aims to support gender balance in the boardroom and nurture future female talent. By running the PR Week Mentoring programme and participating in the UK Government gender pay consultation with the PRCA and PR Week, Women in PR is helping women to smash through the glass ceiling.

Interestingly, we’re seeing this movement take shape at LEWIS, with 55 per cent of the senior positions held by women.

The technology sector is also taking active steps to help women progress. The Tech She Can Charter is an agreement created to increase the number of women working in technology. It aims to empower women and equip them with the tools they need to pursue careers in the technology industry. The charter also encourages companies to make an impact by driving tangible changes to policy and education. Therefore, it’s only fitting that as a technology communications consultancy, LEWIS has pledged to work towards the Tech She Can charter, helping to inspire more women into the field.

Notably, with research by McKinsey finding that firms in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21 per cent more likely to deliver above-average profitability than those companies in the bottom quartile, it’s clearly in everyone’s interests to drive women forward.

So as technology and communications become ever more influential in our lives, the need to promote inclusivity within both industries continues to grow. I look forward to seeing the day when women overcome stereotypes and finally smash through the glass ceiling.