Is “feminism” a dirty word in PR?

Women make up two-thirds of the workforce in PR, but are under-represented in the boardroom, as men are more than twice as likely to be in positions of power. This is not just bad news from an equality point of view, but from a financial one – according to research by management consultancy PA Consulting Group, which analysed the public reports of 50 UK and US companies from 1997 to 2012, those with female leaders generate higher total shareholder return. Lesley Uren, talent management specialist at PA Consulting Group, says: “The study indicates that there is a correlation between high-performing organisations and those with more women in the executive teams. Many of the poorer performers, in addition to having fewer women, have cultures that are characterised by inconsistency, unclear missions and a weaker sense of ownership and commitment from employees.”

Does this mean feminism should be a PR issue? Sally Costerton, director of PR consultancy Sally Costerton Advisory, says that with the increasing success of young women at all levels of education and in the workplace, we may be seeing a long-term trend where the equality struggle may finally be won: “Girls in the 22-to-30 age bracket are paid more than their male equivalents”, points out Costerton, which she says is “about time”, adding, “over my quarter-century in the communications industry, the paltry amount of senior women seems to have barely shifted. We have hardly been standard bearers for the equality agenda – let alone a feminist one. Perhaps women leaving our industry could afford not to return. Perhaps their husbands were not prepared to face the stigma of being the primary child carer. My experience (primary bread winner, flexible, supportive husband) was rare ten years ago. Now society seems much less judgemental, and I am happy to see far more couples making this choice.”

Things may be improving but there are still examples of sexism in PR. Angela Casey, managing director of PR firm Porter Novelli, Edinburgh, says that despite greater equality, there remain elements of sexism – though in practice, it is now more about discrimination against women who make family choices than about excluding women from the workplace or treating them as second class citizens. This does not mean that we need to have a feminist movement in PR says Casey: “We no longer need the revolutionary and aggressive feminism of the past, as the professional world has largely embraced equality. What I do think, however, is that if women want true equality in the workplace they have to behave in a professional and career-focused way and offer 100 per cent to the job while they are doing it.”

Just because things are fairer for women in PR these days, this doesn‘t mean that the word “feminism“ is redundant in PR. As Victoria Ruffy, managing director of PR agency Little Red Rooster, says: "PR has learnt quickly that if a woman chooses to have a family it doesn't automatically pop her on the scrap heap. Flexible working has long been common practice in the industry and so it should be if you want to keep talented women still working in your sector. There are still elements of the industry that exploit young women, but I think a company would be stupid to follow the tired, old stereotype of ‘dumb PR girls‘. I want a team of people – both men and women who are fabulous at their job, proud to be working in one of the most exciting industries and able to do that role free from prejudice. I'd like to call all my team feminists – both men and women."

But not everyone is a feminist in PR. Debbie Zaman, managing director of agency With PR, complains about the sexism she witnesses: “I love my job, I really do. PR is in my blood and I relish the strategic and creative challenges it offers me on a daily basis. But, as a woman in her 30s with long, blonde hair, tell anyone you love PR and they look at you as if you have had a lobotomy. Some suggest you might have gone into PR as it is a ‘fun’ job, drawing on a woman’s innate ability to chat (sorry, communicate). As far as I can see, there is #everydaysexism about PR, let alone within it. So events like being ushered to the secretary’s chair to take minutes during a meeting or being asked how I can possibly stay late to work on a pitch when I have two children at home (with their father) sit in the broader context of an #everydaysexism at large. The PR industry has much it can make noise about, however. We are far from perfect, but this is an industry where women can successfully rise to the top, start their own business, work part-time and job share. I have seen – and experienced – much of this. But change needs to happen on a macro level. When people are trolling tennis player Marion Bartoli for her looks, what hope can any woman have of securing accolades for their work based on merit?”

Written by Daney Parker