Nine female founders of PR agencies from across the globe talk about the gender imbalance in public relations, their challenges, and success stories of changing the sector – and its leadership styles.
Between 60% to 75% of PR specialists are women. Yet, they get lower salaries than their male colleagues and are governed by males. Nine female PR leaders were asked by Enterie about the statistics in their countries. For instance, as we learnt, the average number of women on staff in PR agencies in Spain is 72.8%. However, the percentage of women on board committees in PR agencies is 57%. In Portugal, 74.1% of communication departments and agencies have a majority of women, but only slightly over one third of them have female leaders.
Things are even worse in the U.S. where there is an interesting gender imbalance in PR. DeAnna Spoerl, Co-owner at Bear Icebox Communications, a Chicago-based agency, says that roughly only 36% of the field is male while a whopping 63% is female. However, the majority of leaders in PR are in fact male. Only about a third of PR agencies are actually run by female leaders. “I believe this speaks to a much larger issue of females not getting the same opportunities to show leadership skills even in spaces where we dominate. And honestly, I wish I had an answer as to why this phenomenon continues to happen given the amount of effort put into stabilizing the imbalance,” says Spoerl.
But the sector has been slowly changing. Deborah Gray, founder at Canela, a PR agency present in the Iberian Peninsula that has 84% female staff and a majority of female directors, is optimistic: “The good news is there has never been a better time to enter the workplace as a woman. There are not enough of us in senior positions, but there are more than there used to be. And all of us owe a great deal to those who have gone before us and broken down the barriers. I think the best way we can repay that debt is to keep leveling up the playing field for the next generation.”
We have to move forward to get more women into management positions.
Hitting the glass ceiling
While for some female PR leaders, setting up their own agency had been an aim ever since, for some, such as for Shama Hyder, the founder of Zen Media and the author of one of the first books on social media, The Zen of Social Media Marketing, it meant creating her dream job. “I wrote my graduate thesis on Twitter… when it had 2,000 users. It was the very early days for social media and digital marketing at large. In fact, it was so new that there were no jobs in the industry. The ‘industry’ barely existed, which is why I started Zen—I knew I’d have to create my dream job,” says Hyder.
However, not all female founders have always dreamt of being an entrepreneur—some acknowledge a turning point in their careers that pushed them to take the step.
“At some point, I saw several colleagues wanting to return to work from parental leave, but in Germany, there was no possibility for a new mother to get back into the business in a meaningful way,” says Martina Hausel, co-founder at Element C, a leading tech PR agency in Germany. “Wanting to have children and work myself (which now I do), I made the decision to create a work environment where parents could have both growth opportunities and the necessary flexibility.”
Magda Górak, founder and CEO at Polish Profeina, often reflects on the reasons she started her own agency. “I did it primarily because the culture of my previous workplace didn't allow women to make it to the top. Just a regular glass ceiling. Perhaps if I had seemed more 'masculine' to my bosses—that is, if I were stereotypically more business aggressive—maybe I would have had chances for promotion. When I set up my own agency, I felt that I would be able to run the business in my own way, according to my beliefs and values.”
Changing leadership styles
There is no doubt we have to move forward to get more women into management positions. Relating to what’s been said, Ranbir Sahota, Director at Vitis PR, says that in her experience, “female leaders want to promote other women and do understand the obstacles and frustrations they face.” She believes she’s more empathetic to team members with childcare issues, for instance, by being ready to provide the flexibility they need to care for others while working in PR. But providing flexibility and running agency according to one’s beliefs and values, aren’t the only change women may introduce in leadership styles.
As Raminta Lilaitė, CEO at Baltics’ Blue Oceans PR, noted, “in a truly female-led company there are more joint decisions and participation in decision making of the whole team, more empathy and listening to each other.” Alessandra Colao, founder at Italian Doppia Elica, adds: “In general terms I don’t think female leadership is much different from a male one, except that female leaders are more likely to be a mentor and a coach.”
But we should also focus on giving the same opportunities to acquire leadership skills to women so that they don’t stand out in any way—neither with their soft nor hard skills.
‘The right image’ trend?
“In recent years, I’ve noticed a tendency to hire women rather than men. I’d have no objection to this trend if it were based solely on merit but, in some cases, I suspect the motivation is to project ‘the right image,’” comments Nathalie Visele, Director at Dubai-based Shamal Communications, and says that in order for any sector to thrive, the primary consideration when hiring should always be to appoint the best person for the job. “If the PR industry is able to focus on equality of opportunity and ability rather than demographic statistics, diversity should follow automatically,” she adds.