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Strong Female Lead

The Surprising Gender Wage Gap In PR

We ask the question, why aren't women in public relations earning more money?

The Surprising Gender Wage Gap In PR
[Photo: Flickr user i Hub]

With the recent revelations about Sony ‘s movie studio executives behaving badly and its discriminatory treatment of female stars, I decided to look closer to home—to my own industry of public relations—to see how women fare. If anyone should treat women well, shouldn't it be a field like PR, which is predominated by women?

It turns out that while the PR profession skews heavily female, men make significantly more money and hold the majority of the seats of power in the largest agencies.

Consider who's running the world’s top 10 PR agencies as ranked in the Holmes Report. The vast majority has white men at the helm, though two have women running their North American units. It would almost be amusing if it weren't so sad to see some of these agencies’s leadership pages,with men holding all the top spots and women peering out beneath them.

According to industry experts, women dominate the mid-level PR ranks, doing much of the day-to-day heavy lifting, and women are more often in command at smaller-size agencies that they have founded.

Also consider a few stats courtesy of PR Week's 2014 Salary Survey:

  • Women represent 67% of the PR industry.
  • Among those with five+ years of experience, men's base compensation outpaces women's, $130,000 vs. $95,000.
  • The median salary for men in PR is $125,000 compared to $84,000 for women.

Sadly the male pay premium is a fact of life across many industries. But what is particularly galling about gender inequality in the PR industry is that women aren't earning their worth in such a feminized field.

Gender In The Workplace

To help sort out some of the issues, I turned to a PR leader, Barri Rafferty, senior partner and CEO of global PR firm Ketchum North America and the first female North American CEO in Ketchum's 90-year history. Rafferty herself defies the odds. She attributes her success to "open minded leadership that provided me opportunities and rewarded results plus good sponsors, my own moxie, and a supportive spouse."

To Rafferty, some of the discrepancies in salary and leadership represent behavioral issues. For men, she says, self-promoting is as natural as shaving. For women, self-blaming often interferes.

Rafferty relates a common situation. A woman enters a meeting late. Her first words: "Sorry." A man enters a meeting late. His first words: "Can we start now?"

The workplace issues of women in PR cut deep, touching on how women view other women. It’s an ironic fact but many women don’t want to work for other women., according to a Gallup survey.

Rafferty attributes that to the fact that women often have "tougher expectations" for other women. She also thinks women are perceived as more emotional than men and that their communication style can be less direct. That can make for problematic workplace situations.

Naturally there are exceptions. I know in my own case that I have had "overly emotional" male bosses and cold as stone female bosses. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is an inherent wariness on the part of many women in working for another woman.

At the same time, skills historically favored by women including developing relationships and using them to exert influence are an important need in PR. Indeed, success at the PR practitioner level has been based more on finesse than steamrolling, at smoothing rough edges and facilitating.

A mid-level PR person needs the wisdom of Solomon to succeed, often caught between the competing demands of the client and the journalist. It’s a world where you don’t have complete control and need to move discretely and behind the scenes.

Fortunately, there are glimmerings of change on the inequality front.

Closing The Gap

Rafferty's firm has initiatives in place to increase diversity, recently adding its first head of diversity and inclusion, and it has progressed to the extent that half of its partners are now women.

The very nature of the profession is also changing thanks to digital media. Suddenly, a new type of PR person is necessary, one with digital and quant skills that are more typically appealing to men than women. At Ketchum, more men than women are represented in the digital side, according to Rafferty.

Ironically, as more men enter PR, it may become more egalitarian. As the female ghetto opens itself up, those at the lower and mid-level ranks may see a boost in their salaries. Studies have shown that more men in an occupation can raise salaries for everyone.

Meanwhile, women don't have to sit still. Here are three steps Rafferty says women in PR (and other professions) can take to help themselves:

  • Don’t drop out.

    Even it you work part-time or hourly, it is much harder to get back in.
  • Have swagger.

    Stand tall. Develop your person brand. That means among other things getting rid of the need to be always "apologizing."
  • Don’t be intimidated by the numbers.

    Have a better understanding of the numbers throughout your career. It’s the fear factor at work here, not the difficulty.
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