Sugar and spice – are women in PR too nice?

sugarspice“The position of women outside the dominant social power base suggests a need for more radical activism to enable their voices, and causes, to be heard.” – a view I expressed in a post at PR Conversations in December: Dissent PR – from suffragettes to slut walks. Well, the furore that has resulted from an activist campaign to ensure that at least one female (other than the Queen) appears on British bank notes, has certainly caused women’s voices to be heard on this issue, and that of trolling through Twitter.

Although I did sign the petition, I can’t say that Jane Austen would have been my choice (and why did the campaign seem content with just one woman on the notes?). The writer I’d prefer to have seen selected is Mary Wollstonecraft, not least for wider recognition of her appropriate feminist role as an advocate of women’s rights. (And, I share her birthday, although just over 200 years separate us in age!)

It strikes me, however, that women in public relations have been absent in any high profile way from either this campaign, or commenting on the Twitter abuse button issue. (Although it has resulted in numerous promotional oriented PR posts on dealing with Twitter trolls).

The key activist was Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist, feminist campaigner and co-founder of . This site highlights the lack of women experts featured in the media on a host of topics (not just female oriented ones).

You’d think that this issue was one where women in PR would prove supportive – after all, aren’t we the ones who raise the profiles of experts and often are their gatekeepers with our media contacts? Perhaps ironically, The Women’s Room does not allow PR companies to register for its expert search – although it does suggest getting in touch to book an expert speaker for an event.

The lack of women as experts is evident even within Public Relations, an occupation where around three-quarters of practitioners are female. Check any PR conference or trade publication, look at those featured in PR Week’s Power Book, or the membership of professional body working groups, and it will be dominated by men. I’m not saying this is discrimination (although it may be), but perhaps women in PR aren’t putting their hands up enough to be recognised as experts and commentators with valuable experience and opinions to share. Or is it enough to have a token one or two females represented? At the most, you’ll be lucky to find parity in gender representation – but why not have women dominating in an industry that is dominated by women?

A few week’s ago, Marian Salzman, wrote a post at The Holmes Report titled “America’s PR industry is too feminized and politically correct“. She correlated criticism of the PR awards at Cannes Lions as bland with the number of women working in PR; an argument that was flawed by her praise of an “Aussie-mindset” which she interpreted as reflecting “a great masculine energy” (despite the fact that Greg Smith cites data that a clear majority of Australian PR practitioners are female). In the comments, she did backtrack on her diagnosis, and called for “an injection of badness into our work — to spice up the creative produce and change up the game”.

If little girls are supposed to be made of sugar AND spice – where is the spicy side of women in PR?

Why don’t we see C.J. Cregg, the West Wing’s formidable White House Press Secretary (whose backstory is as a political science Masters graduate and highly paid PR consultant) as our fictional role model rather than more usual fluffy PR bunny or other unflattering stereotypes?

Suzanne Moore in her infamous (for her poorly considered reference to Brazilian transexuals and even worse handling of the resulting Twitterstorm) New Statesman article in January, Seeing red: the power of female anger asked:

Why are we not telling our inbred overlords that we are not as nice as we look?

She felt that “feminism as ‘a movement’ has collapsed in the West” – I would contend, it certainly doesn’t seem to be evident among most female PR practitioners. Whenever the topic of women dominating the PR industry – yet being a minority at senior levels is raised, two responses come up:

  1. Women are better at communications and/or relationship building and/or softer skills (supposedly reflecting emotional intelligence) – hence why they flock to the occupation
  2. Women aren’t as career oriented – they take career breaks, are less aggressive in pursuing professional advancement, don’t want to work the long-hours once they have families, etc etc (reflecting Catherine Hakim‘s preference theory argument) – hence why they aren’t the majority in senior roles.

When you discuss gender issues with PR students, especially undergraduates, they are concerned by the situation (Stephen Waddington noted the topic came up with US students visiting London earlier this year). When you introduce them to literature and statistical data (especially studies such as the Velvet Ghetto which noted a $1 million penalty for being a woman), lively debate ensues (and some great dissertation topics).

Similarly, I find female PR students, especially experienced practitioners, are energised by Dr Derina Holtzhausen‘s concept of the corporate activist. Indeed, public relations as activism is an increasingly common topic within the literature marking a shift from a focus on PR being seen as a force to oppose activism.

Does this suggest women in public relations may be getting a taste for slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails – which is what little boys are made of, according to the 19th century English nursery rhyme? One purpose of this childhood story of gender differentiation may have been to remind little girls to be nice and good, where it was acknowledged that boys should be independent and adventurous. Have women in PR adopted a similar approach in conforming to a professional stereotype rather than being feisty and challenging?

I don’t believe that to be true – but do wonder why they aren’t louder and prouder of the work they do and the issues and causes that affect women.

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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 “Sugar and spice – are women in PR too nice?”

  1. It’s interesting how despite women “dominating” (in sheer numbers) the public relations industry how much holding back and stereotyping there is regarding key roles.

    As an independent thinker and someone not afraid to speak her mind (I’d like to think an “informed opinion”) it’s amazing how many times I get told I’m a “bully” (or another B word), whereas a man could say the identical thing (or even more critical) and be given a pass.

    The other thing I really dislike, particularly in the online world of PR, is how women are expected to flatter and flirt with everyone–even the females (but particularly the males). When did this type of behaviour become the acceptable norm?!

    I look forward to you finishing Lean In, so we can discuss key aspects of Sheryl Sandberg’s book.

    Heart this post, Heather. And I’m really not simply flattering you…….

    1. Hey Heather and Judy,

      Personally I think we need to start with the basics. Society still forces women to publicly acknowledge our marriage status with these Miss, Mrs., and Ms. salutations; a topic of which I addressed on my personal blog, here:

      Maybe… just maybe once these simple basic titles become no longer acceptable to use, maybe then females will learn to be who they want to be.

      The simple things can all work toward helping to put this nursery rhyme of females being made of “sugar and spice” back on the shelf, and left to the time period in which it was written for.

      Just my take on this,

    2. Judy – there have been a number of academic studies looking at the issues you raise. The 2010 special edition of the online journal, PRISM, is worth looking at for a variety of perspectives:

      I think the ‘flirting/flattery’ approach is interesting as most of the women I know who are successful in PR (particularly motor industry) are not like this at all online or offline. Indeed, I once worked with someone who behaved like that and dressed in a way that led to a client (very alpha male) complained about her. As her supervisor, I had to raise the issue and she went ballistic about how dare I comment on her dress etc.

  2. Trish – I think it is an interesting point about how we still reflect the old ‘possession’ perspective of women in the use of titles. I joke that it is one reason why I’m taking my PhD so that when I’m asked if I’m Miss, Mrs or Ms, I can say it is Dr. At present, I tend to say to anyone who asks (normally someone who needs to fill in a field in a database), I don’t care, so use whatever they wish. They don’t know what to do then. I retained my married name when I divorced some 20 years ago, so I’m not really Mrs, but I don’t believe I can be Miss Yaxley (and it sounds like a maiden school teacher at my age) and Ms is used too pejoratively for my liking.

    In hindsight, I wish I’d retained my ‘maiden’ name (how Jane Austen-old fashioned does that sound?) when I got married as that would have made life simpler. But then what title would you use? And going double-barrelled is equally a statement.

    As you say in your post, much simpler for men. I do wonder if we really even need such titles these days – and if we do, why isn’t there a gender neutral term to use?

  3. I think that PR firms are geared toward promoting their clients more than themselves. Judging by their Web sites, blogs and social-network activity, most of the PR agencies I know of do a very poor job of promoting themselves.

    While, to a certain extent, women practitioners who successfully self-promote also serve to promote their agencies, I think it likely that practitioners of either sex are probably more focused on advancing their careers by contributing to their agencies’ success and growth than on their own recognition in civic society. Individual recognition within the business arena is, traditionally, tied to achievement as a superlative employee for one’s employer.

    The exception to this are the women sole practitioners or agency owners who promote their companies by achieving personal recognition in multiple spheres of influence. I’ve worked with, and for, many such women, and none of them have ever struck me as over-polite wallflowers too shy to assert themselves in any interaction or arena.

    As a feminist, I support anyone’s efforts to break glass ceilings. But I disagree with this article’s premise that because women are predominant in PR that they should, therefore, be any more assertive in making their voices heard, for the improvement of their sisters in business and society, than they individually require for their own personal or career needs.

  4. Steven – thanks for the comment. There are two aspects of your thoughts that I’d like to address. First is the implication that PR practitioners are, and should be, invisible, with their personal views and profile hidden behind that of their employer (whether that is an agency or client). I understand this is often the case, but it is interesting that when appointing a consultancy, the client is likely to be interested in the people who will manage their account and what these individuals can do for them. PR is also very much about relationships which are built and/or destroyed by people rather than organisations. Can we really expect PR practitioners to have no opinions or interests of their own? I don’t think it is realistic, or desirable, to view PR people as empty vessels that only spout corporate messages. Shouldn’t they be interested in the world around them, care about issues that affect them (and their clients) and be capable of expressing an intelligent, thoughtful and interesting viewpoint?

    Secondly, I disagree with you that advancing a career comes from contributing to the employer’s success (again whether an agency or in-house organisation). The idea that people spend their careers within one organisation may have been the case in the 20th century and even then, the evidence (I’m researching careers for my PhD studies) is that people had to be agents of their own career advancement. Having a profile is one of the factors that certainly is important in being head-hunted – look at the role of LinkedIn for a modern development of this. Most people list interests as well as experience as part of their profile. Also, let’s not forget that individual recognition in organisations has often been as much (if not more) about self-promotion and/or networking/contacts as doing a good job.

    Also, I never stated that women in PR are shy to assert themselves – particularly if they are self-employed or run their own business – or indeed, reach the highest levels in organisations. My issue was more that the profile of women in PR is much less than that of men – particularly when looking at conference speakers, coverage in industry titles and so on. This is odd when women dominate the industry. I’m questioning why they aren’t more assertive on in this public arena – or at least as prevalent as men, who presumably face the same career and promotional issues you mention.

    Finally, why shouldn’t women in PR speak out on societal issues that are likely to be of interest to them? I’m truly disappointed if what you are saying is that women are too worried about impacting their career progression to take a stance on issues or indeed, even think about such matters as whether there are suitable women in organisations to use as spokespeople (ie to support the womensroom campaign). So, yes, I’d like to see women in PR supporting their ‘sisters’ in business and society – at the least as much as women in any other occupation.

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