Public relations agencies are dominated by women. So why are all their leaders men?

A hidden problem.
A hidden problem.
Image: Richard Rutter/Flickr via BY CC 2.0
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If you’ve ever worked with a public relations professional, chances are she was a woman. Sure, there are plenty of men in the industry, but for the most part it’s a profession dominated by women. In fact, PR is an industry that is inclusive of women at every level—except for the very top.

The world’s biggest PR agencies are most guilty of this imbalance. This reality was put back into focus with the recent elevation of Karen van Bergen from CEO of Porter Novelli to head of the newly formed Omnicom Public Relations Group. This leaves Donna Imperato at Cohn & Wolfe as the only female CEO among the world’s largest firms.

Depending on who you ask, women hold anywhere from 61% to 85% of all PR jobs, and 59% of all PR managers are female. And yet, according to the 2014 World PR Report, only 30% of all global PR agencies are run by women.

How could the majority of positions in PR be held by women, while men hold the bulk of the industry’s leadership roles at the highest levels? On International Women’s Day (March 8), now is the perfect time to examine this question.

PR attracts many women because specialists need to listen to and empathize with their clients, work well in teams, and be fierce advocates for their clients. These skills are a natural fit for a lot of women. These are also skills that make good managers and strong leaders.

Having women in leadership roles is also good business. A study by workplace-research group Catalyst took a look at 353 Fortune 500 companies and found that those with the highest representation of women in senior management teams had a higher return on equities and returns to shareholders—by more than a third.

So what can we do to create more opportunities for women to be PR leaders? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Add more women to boards. More women in the boardroom is good for the bottom line. The same Catalyst study found that greater numbers of women board directors correlate with higher return on sales, better stock growth, lower risk of insolvency and lower likelihood of financial restatement.
  • Increase work flexibility. Work/life balance can be especially difficult for women because responsibilities for childcare and elder care often fall to them. Both men and women need to share these responsibilities more. In addition, companies can offer employee benefits like flexible work schedules, telecommuting and paid maternity leave. Quite simply, try not to have a meeting at 7:30 am.
  • Eliminate stereotypes. Though much progress has been made for women in the workforce, sexism is still an issue for many organizations. For instance, a study by Yale in 2012 showed that when a man speaks up he is considered powerful. But women are more likely to face criticism for speaking more than others.
  • Promote yourself. Women have to take up the mantle and fight for themselves to overcome obstacles. Perhaps because they tend to be punished for it, women are less likely to self-promote than men. Yet women are also their own best advocates. Don’t be afraid to share your successes with your supervisors.

My own agency Ogilvy PR, a part of Ogilvy & Mather, is taking action at every level to end this imbalance. We are starting from a strong position. I sit alongside eight other women on our new company board of 17, created by Ogilvy PR Global CEO Stuart Smith. Women also account for five out of our eight office heads in North America and 71% of our practice leads.

However, we know there is much more to do. Worldwide CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, John Seifert, has created a “30 for 30” program that fast-tracks successful female leaders and creates opportunities for them to grow at the agency. We have also included a segment on unconscious gender bias in our management training and instituted a model for best practices for gender in the workplace.

Gender-inclusive policies like these are an important first step, but the fact that we need them shows we still have a long way to go as an industry. However, the size of the challenge must not distract us from its importance. Let us all work together so that next year on International Women’s’ Day, we can say that we helped create even more opportunities for successful female leaders.