Feminization of public relations

I’ve produced this infographic as part of my presentation at next week’s International History of Public Relations Conference. My paper aims to foreground the career experiences of women working in public relations in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. As well as reviewing the existing historical literature (where the presence of women is largely missing) and conducting qualitative interviews, I wanted to put the story into some statistical context.

Although the veracity of any data is impossible to verify, it does provide heuristic knowledge of the increased feminization of the field of public relations over the past four decades. During the 1970s and 1980s, the data indicates the percentage of women in PR in the UK increased from around 10% to 40% – from one to four in every ten practitioners. This has risen further in the last twenty years to almost seven in ten practitioners.

At the same time, the occupation itself has employed an increasing number of people. Here, I feel data reflects guestimates – but from 4,000 in 1960, to 10,000 in 1986 and 35,000 in 1989. This final figure (from a report in the Institute of Public Relations directory of 1990), was said to include 15,000 support personnel.

Last year’s PR Census reported a figure of 61,600 people employed in the occupation. A very rough calculation suggests under 1,000 women were employed in public relations in the UK at the start of the 1970s; compared to around 40,000 today. The ‘tipping point’ to a majority female occupation in the UK would appear to have occurred around the end of the last century; over a decade behind the US.

Of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Although the proportion of women in the UK working population increased from one-third in 1961 to two-fifths in 1981, this primarily reflected married women undertaking part-time work in low paid occupations. Similarly, the PR Census data showed PR is more likely than the general working population to be young – and female. In addition, women do not seem to view public relations as a long-term career (or at least primarily returning as independent consultants after maternity breaks). Which means men continue to hold more senior positions in PR – and consequently are better paid.

However, this view reflects a traditional career ladder perspective – and the next phase of my research into career strategies in public relations will look at emerging models that reflect changes in modern employment. From this viewpoint, women practitioners in PR may demonstrate better than men the need for customised careers.

Bandura (2001) argued “in the modern workplace, workers have to take charge of their self-development for a variety of positions and careers over the full course of their worklife”, with agentic self-efficacy (Sadri 1996) of increasing relevance. Sadri notes:

Self-efficacy may be defined as an individual’s judgement of his/her capability to organize and execute a course of action required to attain a designated type of performance. Agentic behaviour includes creating and/or taking advantage of opportunities, risk-taking behaviour, assertiveness in the protection of one’s rights and in the pursuit of one’s goals, persistence in goal pursuits, and willingness to change one’s situation to achieve a better fit with interests, aspirations and expectations.

This means women need to not only to take responsibility for their careers, but also to believe in themselves, something it is argued they are less socialised to do. Likewise, Cline (1989) claims women typically reflect a passive approach to career development.

In 1928, Doris Fleishman wrote in the context of careers in public relations:

the ultimate possibilities for women lie in the future

In number terms, this would appear to have been a correct forecast – but in terms of whether or how women take advantage of these possibilities – particularly in the context of new career forms and methods of working, I believe the statement remains yet to be proven.


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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.

6 thoughts on “Feminization of public relations”

  1. In the car world, the worst thing you can do is present a model as ‘girly’ as men then don’t want to be seen driving it. I feel the same thing has happened to PR as it has a public perception as being a female occupation. This is reinforced (annoyingly) often by women who go on about female strengths in communications etc – which further diminishes the intellectual and strategic value of PR. Ironically, research shows women themselves generally seek to distance themselves from the ‘PR bunny’ stereotype as they develop their careers (I found this also in my research with women who entered PR in the 1970s/1980s). The industry also still promotes emotional/gendered issues where women are expected to be friendly and so on, so they often end up in the event management side rather than senior counsel or sectors such as finance etc.

    Interestingly, the gender balance is much more equal on undergraduate courses in advertising and marketing – and male dominated in business studies. In the motor industry, we also see men coming into PR as ex-journalists – at senior levels where they frequently hop over women with more experience and qualifications in PR.

    Another frustration is that often men are the focus of profile pieces or asked to present at conferences instead of women – so on the one hand there aren’t enough female role models of career development for younger women. But on the other hand, the profile of these men doesn’t seem to translate into attracting young men into the occupation.

    Do you have any thoughts Ged?

  2. Nothing concrete, this is drawn from my own personal experience.

    I must admit I didn’t set out to work at a PR agency it just happened, I was looking for a marketing role to match my degree. PR isn’t seen as a serious, long term career. My Dad gave me a Rotring pen and pencil set to remind me that PR wasn’t ‘proper’ work. The pay isn’t great, the hours can be like corporate lawyers when you are starting off and the practice of PR (up to the rise of digital) wasn’t intellectually challenging).

    Client service in PR as practiced agency side often means obsequiousness and ambiguity rather than doing the right thing and ‘no’ is a dirty word. PR is seen as a tactical buy by clients, despite the amount we talk about strategy.

    Finally, the office environment can leave you cold. I hated working in PR for the first three years. I only stuck it out because I was on my third career move. Having come from a very different blue-collar environment, where if you didn’t function as a team people could get killed, I found the political aspects of it distasteful; arguments would fester rather than blow over.

  3. Interesting discussion.

    Heather – I look forward to catching up / hearing you at IHPRC.

    Ged – you write that ‘the practice of PR (up to the rise of digital) wasn’t intellectually challenging’. I’m not disputing this – but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Why does digital make PR more intellectually challenging? This would make an interesting piece for Behind the Spin if you have the time and inclination.

  4. Hello

    We are PR and Communication students and we are currently running a blog on Ethics. One of our post is about Women discrimination which is, in my opinion, related to your article regarding to the numbers of increasing women in the PR world. We do believe that discrimination against women has now decreased nowadays due to their stronger psychological aspect. At the same time, stereotypes are still present associating women with housewives but this mentality is changing through years, proving that they can be more ambitious and even at the same level than men in today’s society.

    Do not hesitate to have a look on our blog and give your opinion on our different topics 🙂



    Think Act Ethics team!

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