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The PR Glass Ceiling: Confronting Gender Bias in a Female-Dominated Industry

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Written by: Binh Nguyen

There aren’t a whole lot of cracks in the PR industry’s glass ceiling…yet.

Public Relations is among the most rapidly growing and “best jobs”—ranking third in the Best Creative & Media Jobs 2016 list, according to U.S. News and World Report. Despite its popularity, this seemingly progressive industry lags behind when it comes to advancing the majority of its’ professional stakeholders—women.

While women make up about 70 percent of the PR workforce, they only hold about 30 percent of the top positions in the industry. It’s worth exploring these numbers from established research that suggests women have more distinctive challenges attaining leadership positions compared to their male counterparts. It’s clear that women in PR still face a “glass ceiling”—the name we call the invisible barrier that hinders advancement of women in their professional lives.

As an aspiring PR pro, it’s disheartening to acknowledge that opportunities only get more scarce once female practitioners reach higher positions, especially later in their careers. Many studies show that women hit the glass ceiling long before the CEO level, likely from a combination of purposeful decisions and subconscious biases at the top.

In an industry that is predominately female at the tactical level, but overwhelmingly male at the upper management level, it is curious how such blatant misbalance can persist. But with multiple factors contributing to this trend, it makes it difficult to pinpoint how to change it.

So, what needs to happen to break the glass?

The public relations industry needs to be inspired by Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”—A song that empowers women to believe that they are actually capable of running the world (one day).

According to financial PR veteran Brian Hart, founder and president of Flackable, empowerment is a key ingredient to creating an equal opportunity atmosphere. “When you empower driven and talented women in the workplace, that’s when you can unlock their true potential,” said Hart. “Too often I’ve seen supervisors in this industry, both male and female, make the mistake of trying to over-manage their female staff. What I’ve found is that by giving them freedom, accountability and true ownership over their work, they’re able to develop their skills and confidence significantly further than a more stringent atmosphere would allow.”

Flackable has created a culture and work structure that offers employees – both male and female – opportunities for rapid advancement. The agency has policies in place to ensure equal pay, paid parental leave, and the flexibility of working from home. These policies are uniquely accommodating women, and they are geared toward preventing gender or family status from placing any team member at a disadvantage.

While some agencies are doing things right, the reality and numbers show that not all PR agencies and firms are as accommodating to females. In fact, among the industry’s top 10 agencies—women, on average, make up a mere 29 percent of leadership teams. Data shows that it’s not impossible to be in a leadership position as a woman in the PR industry, but it does imply that there are more obstacles that will hinder the progression of women to positions of power.

To create real change, companies in the industry must be held accountable. Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll show you what you value.” The fact is that female-friendly policies are not high on the list of investments for many PR workplaces. With six-in-ten Americans believing that women’s responsibilities to family stand in the way of them becoming top executives, it raises doubt in how much establishments truly value their female workforce.

To create equal advancement opportunities in the industry, an empowerment movement needs to happen. If we all made more conscious and mindful decisions to empower each other and ourselves, the glass ceiling will crack.

Until then, don’t let it define or confine the role of talented women in an industry we dominate in numbers. Like Beyoncé says — “We’re smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business.” #MicDrop

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