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PR glass ceiling: Myth or reality?

Why are there more women in public relations (PR) than men? Yet there are complaints that females in the profession are under represented at executive level where they can call the shots and contribute to the making of meaningful contributions in organisations?

By Lenox Mhlanga


In the United States women comprise 63% of PR specialist roles and 59% of PR management positions, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS).

However, many believe that females are in short supply at C-suite level. The C-suite is the decision-making body in an organisation. While it is a fact that PR itself is missing at this level in Zimbabwe, it goes without saying that there are few females that call the shots.

There is a dearth of accurate data when it comes to statistics related to PR in the country. This is a situation our tertiary institutions offering media studies should rectify by sharing research findings.

Ironically, attend any undergraduate lecture offering a PR course around the world and what strikes you is how few males there are.

Students are writing and presenting papers on issues related to the profession, yet how much of empirical findings are shared with the industry?

Issues of gender parity at the highest level must have been investigated seeing that even in PR or media student terms, females outnumber males.

But that is not the issue here. The question remains, why are there comparatively few women in senior level roles? Is there a glass ceiling syndrome that prevents women in PR from rising above certain levels in organisations?

A number of issues have been identified in research on the issue of gender parity in PR. First is the fact that most organisations are still strongly patriarchal. The people at the top are generally from an “old-boys network” that is male and tend to allow similarly gendered individuals into their circle.

Secondly, the manner in which many female PR professional have risen in the hierarchy has been fingered as a challenge. Because of the level of training for PR people which have been basic, organisations have preferred to look internally for women with potential and promoted them.

A general lack of understanding of the demands of the profession has seen personnel assistants being elevated to PR managers because of their ability to organise events and deal with the public. Apart from short-changing the organisation in terms of skills, this led to the pay-scales of PR practitioners being negatively affected as well.

Another issue was what has been referred to as the “Samantha Syndrome”. This refers to women who feel that they don’t really deserve to be elevated to the decision-making level because they don’t have the capacity.

There can be no doubt that women are capable of rising to the dizzy heights of an organisation, more so as PR executives. But just like in other countries in the world, factors related to culture, invisible barriers to top jobs, opting for consensus and accepting the status quo rather than taking the vocal campaigns of gender activists seems to strangle women in PR.

The UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) is looking at the gender gap being real than imagined by developing a diversity strategy that looks at what concrete steps can be taken. This has been buttressed by studies that have showed that the average gender pay gap of more than 12 000 pounds sterling in favour of men.

They also found that from PR account manager/press officer level and above, men, on average were paid more than women when performing the same role.

The CIPR, as a result, is looking at strategies to promote female PR practitioners in senior roles. These include assertiveness workshops to help practitioners negotiate salary packages and understand their legal rights.

They also aim to develop frameworks for flexible working and better management of maternity leave arrangements. CIPR’s Mind the Gap survey on these issues gathered more than 200 responses in a space of two days. This shows the level of concern on issues of gender in the profession.

In Zimbabwe, institutions of higher learning offering public relations should share research findings on issues relating to gender. If not, they should encourage students to take up the challenge of investigating such issues in organisations.

The Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations also has a role to play in focusing on the welfare of practitioners in addition to working on professional development. Strategic alliances with the Chartered Institute of PR in the UK, Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa and other similar institutions would avail to them expertise, research findings and solutions that can be applied to the local PR landscape.

The fact that it’s all quiet on the Western Front does not mean that the gender parity problem is not an issue in Zimbabwe. Female PR professionals suffer in silence in stifling male dominated environments. Their effectiveness is weakened by male perceptions about what they are capable of achieving.

A colleague remarked that perhaps the reason why PR is kept out of the C-suite has to do with gender issues. It’s not about capacity but rather entrenched misperceptions from male-dominated executive bodies. It’s a view worth debating from so many angles while institutions such as ZIPR take firm measures to assist women break the glass ceiling.

l Lenox Mhlanga is a communication specialist with a global multi-lateral organisation. The views expressed here are his own. He can be contacted at lenoxmhlanga@gmail.com

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