How to fix PR’s gender imbalance

NKPR's Natasha Koifman offers steps to support women and end stereotypes about what they bring to the industry.
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By Natasha Koifman

Having worked in PR for over 20 years, I’m still surprised (and always disappointed) when I experience sexist thinking. It’s especially startling given that I work in an industry dominated by women. Considering we make up 70% of the global PR industry, you’d think it would be smoother sailing for us compared to more male-dominated industries.

There’s a power imbalance in our industry. Representation of women in senior management positions is quite low. Only 30% hold top C-level positions at PR agencies. Only two of the 10 largest agencies worldwide have women running their North American operations. What’s more, the average salary for a woman in PR is $20,000 less compared to her male counterpart. It’s a similar story to that of women working in advertising and marketing.

Sex in the City’s Samantha Jones’ superficial and stereotypical portrayal didn’t do us any favours. Painting an image of a hard-drinking party girl who just planned events for glamorous clients, Jones’ character has become embedded in the public consciousness. What’s more, Hollywood portrayals of PR characters who are tasked to tackle big, serious issues are most often men – with women relegated to the Samantha Jones stereotype.

Popular culture and film portrayals have negatively reinforced our industry and devalued our skillset and contributions to the organizations we counsel.

Much like our counterparts in advertising and marketing, the reality is that PR involves long hours, hard work behind the scenes and carefully conceived and executed strategy. Managing significant budgets and shaping public opinion, influencing purchasing decisions and strengthening businesses bottom line, the work of PR is much more strategic than Samantha Jones’ fictitious PR character suggests. It’s time to end a dated stereotype, get a bigger seat at the management table and close the pay gap. Here are some steps to start (which can be applied to marketing and advertising, too).

Create more mentor and sponsor programs

I’m a huge advocate for mentors and sponsors to train the next generation of leaders. While mentoring is a good thing, being “sponsored” by someone is even more effective in helping to achieve higher positions, pay and promotions. More actively engaged and involved, a sponsor can champion their protegé to advance their career. Mentoring and sponsoring programs should be entrenched within organizations to create workplaces where mutual success is shared and valued.

Commit to more gender diversity on boards

Female representation at the board level of companies in all industries is dismal. In a 2016 study by Catalyst Canada, it was found that only 21.6% of people on the boards of Financial Post 500 companies were women. Increasing the gender diversity of boards is not just the right thing to do, it makes business sense. Catalyst also found that companies with more female representation in senior and board positions enjoy a higher return on equity, sales and invested capital and fewer crises and governance issues.

Invite men to join the conversation

Women networking events, workshops and conferences are invaluable to support and empower each other. But we also need to ensure that we’re inviting men to join the discussion. To create a more diverse and inclusive industry, we need to hear voices and perspectives from as wide a net as possible. I’d love to see working groups around specific issues concerning pay and gender equity, bringing in PR students, young and senior industry practitioners from a variety of levels, disciplines and parts of our industry. Encouraging as many voices as possible is the only way to ensure we create solutions that work for all.

Remove institutional gender bias

Building on the idea above, I think companies should convene committees that tackle gender bias within the workplace. In today’s current climate with stories of sexual abuse, harassment and assault dominating the headlines, I think it’s imperative so we can explore ways for men, women and people of all gender identities to work together productively, acknowledging and respecting each other’s differences and diverse contributions.

I look forward to the day when our industry is more equally represented (and compensated) with a range of women and men from diverse backgrounds, cultures and perspectives, working side by side at all levels of an organization, in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect.

Natasha Koifman is the president of NKPR