Trends and challenges revealed in new book about women and leadership in public relations

by | Jan 27, 2021 | Public Relations

It’s been a glaring problem in the PR industry for some time now—women make up a significant majority of personnel in PR, but leadership positions and opportunities for advancement are decidedly hard to come by. A newly published book, PR Women with Influence: Breaking Through the Ethical and Leadership Challenges, explores how women in PR and communications navigate through attitudinal, structural and social barriers in advancing their leadership roles.

The book is co-authored by Juan Meng, associate professor at the University of Georgia, and Marlene S. Neill, associate professor at Baylor University. Published by Peter Lang International Academic Publishers and part of the AEJMC-Peter Lang Scholarsourcing Series, the new book was developed from a research project co-sponsored by The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication and The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

Grounded by empirical research, the book illustrates the ethical and leadership challenges women in PR face. Some key highlights include:

  • Situational barriers to women’s leadership advancement in public relations;
  • The meaning of building influence to women in public relations;
  • The strategies to set out principles that uphold the core values of ethical leadership;
  • Women’s leadership development and participation opportunities in public relations; and
  • The crucial supporting roles of mentoring and sponsorship in leadership advancement.

The results are based on responses from two phases of research. Phase I involved 51 in-depth interviews with current female executives in public relations and communications; Phase II reflects information and opinions recruited from a national panel of 512 female public relations and communications professionals.

“Our goal with this book is to examine the joint topics of ethics counseling and leadership challenges that women in public relations and communications are facing,” Meng said, in a news release. “We hope to enrich the body of knowledge in women and leadership in public relations while advancing our understanding of identity- and gender-based leadership development skills and ethics counseling strategies.”

Trends and challenges revealed in new book about women and leadership in public relations

Barriers to leadership advancement

Women in PR agree that there is a substantial percentage of women (61.9 percent) serving as direct supervisors at junior and/or middle management levels to fill in the leadership pipeline. However, the pattern of men outnumbering women in senior communication leadership positions is persistent by ethnicity, as well as across different types of organizations.

As rated by women in PR, the top three situational barriers that influence women’s leadership advancement are:

  • Double standards in domestic roles and professional demands (58.6 percent),
  • Social attitudes toward female professionals (57.4 percent), and
  • Workplace structures (57.2 percent).

Women of color are especially disadvantaged by race-based stereotypes

Women in the study highlighted the top three factors contributing to the underrepresentation in top leadership

  • Lack of women as role models in high-level, decision-making positions (43.4 percent);
  • Lack of work-family balance (36.9 percent); and
  • Lack of power of authority or control over important resources (35.2 percent).

Multiple meanings of being a female leader in public relations

The majority of surveyed professionals in the study define influence in the following ways:

  • Being valued as a trusted advisor (85.7 percent),
  • Having career advancement opportunities (84.0 percent),
  • Demonstrating expertise (83.0 percent), and
  • Having a voice that colleagues and co-workers listen to (82.8 percent).

Women of color define influence with strong opinions, highlighting the importance of gaining visibility through senior leadership positions. At the same time, women in PR use multiple strategies to build and enact their influence when providing leadership and ethical counseling. Those widely used strategies include the following:

  • Inviting questions and building a dialogue (74.0 percent),
  • Referring to the core values of the organization (70.1 percent), and
  • Providing scenarios, discussing potential consequences and providing alternative solutions (69.5 percent).

Efforts are needed to minimize the gap between leadership development and participation opportunities for women in PR

It is promising that nearly 64 percent of female professionals agree that their organization has on-the-job training programs to increase competency. Respondents also reported having access to internal and external leadership training and development programs. However, insufficient leadership development resources are particularly noticeable for women in the 31- to 40-year-old age bracket.

The gap between leadership development and participation is noticeable. Female professionals reflect that as line responsibility and decision-making power increase, their opportunities to participate in leadership initiatives decrease. Four out of ten women don’t think they’ve been given sufficient leadership participative opportunities in their organizations’ important initiatives. Quite surprisingly, a substantial percentage of women (41.5 percent) disagree that their organization helps “women like me” participate in one or more professional associations to build networks.

Mentors are important but the numbers are insufficient

Women in PR agree that mentorship not only provides career advice, but also contributes to network building. However, results show that three out of ten female professionals admit they do not have any mentors. In addition, more Black women reported not having a mentor (35.0 percent), compared with white women (28.6 percent) and other minority women (28.8 percent).

“By talking to those successful women executives in PR who were willing to share their personal experiences and provide guidance,” Neill said, “we found one of the most insightful pieces of advice was regarding the role of advocates in career advancement. Senior leaders need to be more willing to identify, mentor and champion young professionals and offer them personal growth opportunities.”

Several factors are sought after when identifying mentors for women in PR including:

  • On-the-job communications and experiences (29.7 percent)
  • Personal connections and networks (24.2 percent), and
  • Professional associations (17.8 percent)

“The depths and the insights from the book can be used to build a roadmap for younger generations and women of color who aspire to move into leadership,” Meng concluded. “Today’s public relations industry is facing enormous pressure to address gender and racial diversity at all levels. We hope our book contributes to addressing disparity, stimulating change, and leveraging the profession to be more diverse, equal and inclusive.”

Meng has been a member of The Plank Center Board of Advisors for three years. As a Plank Center Scholar, Meng has collaborated with The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations during the past ten years on over a dozen research projects. She has received more than $200,000 in funding grants to support her research on public relations leadership and related topics.

Get more information about the book here.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


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