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Challenging the Gender Gap in PR

Blog post   •   Mar 08, 2014 11:34 GMT

On reading the CIPR's State of the Profession Survey 2013/14 I was shocked to see the disparity between men and women in terms of seniority and salaries with "men are twice as likely as women to say that they are Directors, Partners or Managing Directors and are also more likely to be owners of a public relations company." 

As it's International Women's Day I wanted to ask one of my female PR role models, Sara Robinson the Managing Director of Cake Communications, about her experience as a women in the PR industry, her thoughts on why this gender gap exists and her advice for women looking to start their own agency.

From your experience, have you found PR a difficult industry to work in as a woman?  

The difficulties I have come across are most definitely not unique to the PR industry but this issue is particularly pertinent in an industry where women are heavily represented at junior levels but under represented on board and as CEOs. From my experience working in bigger agencies there is a glass ceiling although on face value it appears to be a flexible career choice. 

Without generalising too much I would say that many male-led agencies have a "presenteeism" culture that prevents women from reaching the top levels. 

This means a culture where to leave the office on time is seen as a sign of weakness even though you may have been more efficient and got through the same amount of work as a colleague in half the time. I run my agency very differently. People are rewarded for performance and I embrace flexibility, because I want to be able to recruit from the widest pool of talent available. Because women often have caring responsibilities after a certain age, there can be an element of them choosing to "drop back" in terms of their career. There is so much work to be done here still. But there are many progressive agencies out there doing things differently , who recognise that doing things the old isn't necessarily the best model any more.

Why do you think so few women compared to men choose to open their own agencies?

Well studies have shown that women are naturally more risk averse than men so to an extent this may play a part, especially during a time of economic instability. It can be difficult to make the decision to give up a stable job with a decent salary especially when you have family commitments, whether that's with children or other family member to care for.

Another factor that can inhibit all PR professionals from opening their own businesses is a clause many agencies have in their contracts prohibiting their employees from contacting their clients for 12 months after leaving the agency even if they had personally brought on the client to the business. This means that when starting your own agency you must do it from scratch as the natural place in which you would pitch for business is not open to you. In tough economic times, this is obviously a big risk. 

Do you feel the CIPR and PRCA are supportive of women looking to start their own agencies?

I think that both organisations could do more to support all PR professionals when opening up their own businesses. They do offer very standardised templates for the likes of contracts etc, but as with any sort of business support, often that geared towards women is most successful if it is highly tailored. 

However, I do use their training courses for my staff. With regards to women I do think that they could do more to highlight female role models within the profession. There are plenty of them!

Do you have your own female PR role model? 

Yes, Jo Jacobius, the owner of Axiom Communications. She is incredibly hard working and a fantastic client handler. She showed me that it is possible to run a successful business but leave the office on time at the end of the day and get on with the other aspects of your life. 

She also proved to me that just because you work for a small agency doesn't mean that you should only work with small clients, you can take on the big brands too. Actually I've found that clients really do appreciate the personal touch and smaller agencies are better placed to provide this. 

What advice would you give to those looking to start their own agency?

1. I took on a lot of short term projects to build up my client base and portfolio. I also worked for free in two week spurts to get my foot in the door with the potential clients I'd like to work with in order to prove what I could do for them. 

2. Invest in your shop window - by this I mean do your own PR, get a lot of case studies, invest in a good website and business cards and so on.

3. Network the old fashioned way - while LinkedIn and social media is great, nothing beats face to face communication. This can be difficult if you have a lot of commitments to balance in your personal life but it's invaluable, particularly in the first few months. 

4. Build a network of professional freelancers - use personal recommendations to find great freelancers who can support you when you need them and fill gaps in your skill set. 

5. Don't think it's easy, it's hard work but don't let it hold you back! 

Check out the CIPR's survey results below: 

CIPR State of the Profession 2013/14 from Chartered Institute of Public Relations