Talking about my generation – PR and pretty young things

image According to the UK PR Week-PRCA 2011 PR Census, public relations is dominated by the young and female.  In terms of age, only 20% of PR practitioners are older than 45, despite the fact that 28% of the general working population is over 50.  Women account for almost two-thirds of the PR industry (64%) compared to 46% for the overall workforce.

The Visions of Britain 2020 study looking at “Working Women” (published today) highlights concerns over childcare issues, claiming:

women in their 30s and 40s are having the children that they put off when they were younger as they climbed through the education system and onto the career and property ladders.

This finding echoes the results of one of the undergraduate dissertations I supervised this year in which PR students identified family life rather than a glass ceiling as the most likely barrier to a successful career for men or women.

As 80-90% of undergraduate PR students are female, the statistics, and image of the occupation as one employing pretty young things, may reflect the increasing numbers of qualified women entering PR.  The PR Census appears to back this up showing 11% of females had spent 1-2 years in PR compared to 5% of men.

Data also seems to indicate a black hole where older women in particular are leaving PR owing to difficulties in work-life balance.  The percentage of women working in PR for 16+ years was 19% compared to 36% of men.  (Age and length of time spent in PR appearing to be correlated in the study.)

This suggests women in PR aren’t necessarily turning to freelance opportunities or establishing their own consultancies, which might be considered more flexible options for combining family and work commitments.

The PR Census reveals in excess of 49 hours a week are worked by more than 40% of practitioners, with average starting salaries in the region of £21k (agency) and £28k (in-house).  This does not seem particularly attractive – especially when faced with rising tuition fees for studying a PR degree.

David Phillips has written an excellent series of posts concerning the need to increase the productivity of working in PR.  The essence of his argument is a need to focus on higher value activities in PR, outsourcing or automating the low value work (which are generally those that impact negatively on PR’s reputation), and demonstrating the value of PR as an expert not a tactical function.  We might attract more male PR students if we can show the function isn’t all parties and press release writing.

I believe this means we have to stop portraying PR as “an inherently feminine activity” (as Craig Pearce argued) which is based on the outdated career theory of matching traits to occupations.  This perspective limits both PR and women – with feminisation of any occupation affecting both pay levels and job status.

Already we see women in PR are paid less than men: the PR Census indicates an average of nearly £63k for men cf circa £40k for women.  The message is men are holding more senior positions in PR and are better paid. 

It would be nice to think the waves of smart, young women choosing PR as their career path via a University degree (as opposed to falling into it by default as many older practitioners confess) will gain the rewards of both senior posts and high salaries.  However, I predict that, like my generation, they will find the occupation does not live up to their expectations and develop their career paths elsewhere; particularly if they are not prepared to compromise on having a fulfilling personal as well as professional life.

But let’s not wait until they abandon all hope of a rewarding PR career.  One of the biggest challenges in public relations today is finding good quality mid-career practitioners (according to those looking for talent in the motor industry at least).  If I’m right, there are plenty of intelligent, experienced, age 35+ women (probably mothers) who could be attracted back to work in PR.

They don’t want to work in press release factories or be expected to use their feminine assets to build superficial relationships.  Rather I reckon they have the capabilities to develop effective campaigns, and other more valuable PR activities, within an industry that should offer flexibility of working rather than sweatshop conditions.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

13 thoughts on “Talking about my generation – PR and pretty young things”

  1. I think the most likely explanation of the gender pay gap is that better paid PR roles are in specialisms (eg corporate and financial, technology, public affairs) rather than for general (ie consumer) work. In other words, pay is partly self-selecting, depending on choice of roles and sectors.

    Like you, I take great pleasure in female PR graduates choosing the motor industry, say, over ‘fashion PR’.

    Another less discussed possibility is one of survey accuracy. If asked to give their salary, might some men be inclined to exaggerate while some women might underinflate theirs? Just asking.

  2. The published PR Census doesn’t break pay down by specialism, although primary sector of business was captured, so the data showing this ought to be available. That’s one of the problems with surveys as the cross-tabulations are often where the interesting information may be found.

    Data from our annual MIPAA (motor industry) survey shows a similar trend men reporting higher salaries than women (men outnumber women 60:40 in this sector of PR). When I look at the detail of those in executive positions, although the numbers are small, it appears the men earn more. Whether this is accurate or exaggeration, I couldn’t say. Anecdotally, I think it probably reflects reality. One reason I believe is that men are better at talking themselves up in terms of getting higher salaries (as a sweeping generalisation).

  3. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking post Heather! I just presented a lecture on this topic to my online course in “PR Management.” It left some of the students stunned…particularly the female students who realized that by current statistics in the US, they could expect to be hired at ~25-40 percent lower salary than the male in the virtual seat next to them.

    There is so much culture and ethics wrapped up in this topic as well. On a grander scale, aren’t we asking the impossible: for the corporate world to be humane?

  4. Thanks Bob. Not sure if the issue of gender status and pay gaps is restricted to the corporate world. I expect subtler methods are perhaps evident in the public and not for profit sectors – but perhaps if women vere towards these sectors, as Richard noted, salaries may be lower there in any case.

    I would like to see women better recognise their value in the workplace and be more confident in negotiating initial salaries, rises, benefits and so forth. Also, we need as an industry to promote competency more than tenure and hierarchy. If you are paid on the basis of your ability rather than because you’ve longer experience or hold a manager title, then perhaps we’d see more parity. Also, that would fit better with the emerging entrepreneurial models of career development, flatter structures and increased mobility/flexibility in the workplace.

  5. Thanks for the post Heather! I am a senior in college hunting for a job in PR, and it’s very hard to negotiate salaries. No one in the University discusses how to do this in our classes and graduates are left to what limited information the internet has to offer. It’s very hard to even find a mentor in the profession and ask the question of salary negotiation. I myself find this a large issue that I will have to conquer very soon.


  6. The reality of your post is that there are significant issues arising from the research.
    I am delighted that the PRCA was involved in the research and trust that it will work with the CIPR in the interest of people working in our industry to tease out some of the issues and attempt to find solutions.
    Part of me is disgusted with what we have managed to create over the last two dozen years. That aside, we do have to find solutions.
    The very bright, charming and hard working students I teach will probably be let down by my profession and I just don’t like it.
    We are going to under value some very good people, prevent them for making a worthwhile lifetime (and economic) contribution and who really cares.
    What are the ethics of teaching PR when we see data that shows after all that preparation (four years of studying a ‘management function’), most students’ will be herded into a dead end job dominated by the wicked practice of ‘the phone round’.

  7. David – I agree but PRCA seems to be focused on the headline “success story” rather than engaging with the deeper analysis. I wonder if the issue over the graduates is something that a few concerned folk, like yourself, Richard Bailey and I should consider further and put forward a manifesto or similar to PRCA, CIPR, etc.

    Francis Ingham talks of wanting to attract the best graduates to work in PR – something I’m sure CIPR would agree with. The only way they will want to invest in a PR degree is if they see it has credibility, status and delivers return on their investment careerwise.

    One of the problems is that the graduates are excited when they first get into the “puppy farms” (my derogatory term for the big agencies in particular) – as you can see with the comment by Ren on this post at the CIPR Conversation blog:–pr-and-pretty-young-things

    In fact, I was told by someone at the CIPR 2020 Future of PR session last week that his agency has to get all this strategy nonsense we teach undergraduates out of their heads when they start work. Could you credit a real profession thinking that way? Doctors, lawyers, accountants etc value knowledge, where the PR industry seems to want the graduate entry status but devalue any intelligence that might accompany a degree.

  8. Ally – thanks for your comment. You make a good point about career advice (my PhD topic is in career strategies in PR so it is my primary interest). I’ll send you an email with some thoughts on negotiating salaries etc, which I can then develop into a future post.

  9. Thanks for exploring this topic. I admit it’s not one I want to think about. I’m set to graduate with a degree in PR in December and the gender pay gap is the last thing on my mind (until now!).

    I would like to think that companies wouldn’t discriminate between the sexes, given equal performance. But I can understand why a woman’s reproductive schedule might be of concern to her employer. It’s a tough place — where personal and professional collide. I’m sure we would all love to separate the two and force companies to adhere to strict ethical guidelines preventing them from penalizing women for their familial obligations.

    But, it’s business — and we’re living in a steadfastly capitalist nation. As much as I wish I could enjoy the same treatment as a man, I also know that putting off your career to have a family is a bad business move. It’s not so unreasonable for employers to respond with lower salaries.

    I don’t think mothers would say they’d prefer to have 20 percent more money over having their child. They’ve seen the unquantifiable payoff of living a full life outside of the business world.

    I suppose the only problem I have with the wage gap is when maternity leave never comes into play, but women are still penalized, based on a perceived threat that they may not be in it for the long haul — or worse, stereotyped as pretty idiots.

  10. One thing that would attract more working parents back into PR is flexible working. I currently work two days a week, jobsharing an in-house post with another PR professional. The level of applications we got when the jobshare was advertised was way above what was expected.

    Flexible working should also be seen as an opportunity in these constrained times. Must posts be full-time and, in the main, office based? There are plenty of professionals out there who’d like to work more flexibly.

  11. Kelly – I agree with you but would like the idea of flexibility to stop being seen as job-sharing or other types of terminology that in effect demeans anything other than the norm. I am a portfolio worker as are many independent consultants – meaning that I work on a number of projects, but none of them full time. In effect that’s the service that people like you are providing to your employer – so they pay for two days and get (no doubt) more than their money’s worth in return. The fact someone else also works in the same role for 2-3 days shouldn’t reduce the service either of you give. As you say, this is the future and the idea of full-time, office based, 9-5 work for one employer for life is frankly so 20th century. The future is definitely about flexibility and personal ownership of career development in whatever form that may be.

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