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Why Are There Are So Many Women Working in Public Relations?

Why Are There Are So Many Women Working in Public Relations?

  • Culture
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Top image: Rawpixel / Unsplash. Some names have been changed. 

Every week, I receive about 15 pitches by email from public relations agencies.

I can count on one hand the amount of times a pitch has come from a man.

It’s true, the gender ratio in the PR/comms industry is drastically imbalanced. A simple explanation for the inordinate amount of females is that the arts and media faculties in schools, where most PR/comms professionals come from, are made up of mostly women.

Hence, the same situation applies to the industry where many of their graduates end up.

Yet this reasoning doesn’t consider the inherent appeal of the discipline and the required skills to perform well in the industry.

So how did so many women end up in PR/comms?

I had my own hypothesis: the character traits that make a ‘great’ PR/comms professional overlap with conventionally ‘feminine’ attributes. These include taking care of others’ needs, making people feel comfortable, and lending a listening ear.

Women may be drawn to PR because they feel they’re collaborative and social, but we’ve also socialised most of our women to be that way.

One boring day, I finally conducted an informal experiment to test my theory, where I did something few journalists would do: I replied to several of these pitch emails.

But instead of discussing their pitch, I asked these PR/comms folk if they were willing to talk to me about their job.

According to most of the people I spoke with, they landed in PR/comms because they wanted the challenge of having a different routine every day. No one planned to end up in the industry, with most being exposed to traditional doctor and lawyer type of careers when they were growing up.

Interestingly, the only men I spoke to for this article were my friends; there were no male PR/comms names in my inbox. Women I spoke to mainly enjoyed the job because it allowed them to meet new people; it also highlighted their ability to make others feel comfortable.

But Lewis, one of the men I interviewed, felt differently. Asked what his favourite part of being in PR/comms was, his answers were skewed towards the fast-paced, all-consuming nature of the work. He also relishes the constant challenge of coming up with strategies to solve issues. He had done a stint in the finance industry previously, so I wasn’t surprised.

Granted, Lewis’s perspective is anecdotal, but I wonder if men in PR/comms are typically drawn to the industry because of the ‘harder’, more ‘rational’ aspects of the job. On the other hand, the ‘softer’ parts like people-pleasing and schmoozing with the media might not register on their radar at all when settling on this career choice.

Unfortunately, the latter is often why many people think of PR/comms as nothing more than “fluff”.

"Many of the women I spoke to seemed to genuinely enjoy portraying things in a positive light, which is the exact opposite of most journalists I know, who appraise every fact they encounter with the skepticism of an overzealous hall monitor." — The Atlantic, 2014
The average person still understands PR/comms professionals to be ‘spin doctors’, who deal with “brand perception” and “image”.

No one outside the industry actually knows what that means.

Additionally, the tension between journalists and PR/comms is longstanding. Hang out with a journalist long enough and you’ll hear complaints about being bothered by people from PR/comms over email or phone far too often with irrelevant requests and pitches. Journalists also baulk at their phoniness, assuming the only reason PR/comms folk bother ‘sucking up’ is so they can get their clients good media coverage.

In reality, the fine line between persistence and obnoxiousness is one that those in PR/comms walk with trepidation every day.

Clarissa, who only just started in the industry earlier this year, says, “My least favourite part of the job is the actual pitching and having to call up different journalists. I’m always so worried that I’m bothering them whenever I call them, and I don’t like troubling people.”

This fear of bothering journalists isn’t unfounded. The best work from PR/comms is usually invisible; employees are more than happy to work behind the scenes to ensure the public image of a brand remains intact.

So, actively reaching out with a pitch or request feels like a form of self-promotion, placing the PR/comms worker in the spotlight. It also goes against the conventional ‘be nice, don’t push too hard’ ethos that many women have ingrained.

An article in Jacobin magazine argues that “when writers attack bad PR, the unspoken heart of their criticism is the failure on the part of the publicist to adequately conceal that she is performing emotional work for money”.

It goes on to suggest that creative industries are generally seen as a more liberal alternative to the corporate grind. Many employees choose this work out of “passion”. Therefore, “performing passion for a wage” feels offensive, especially when PR/comms work is fundamentally regarded as the direct opposite of the ‘authentic’, ‘proper’ and ‘legitimate’ field of journalism.

Where journalism is ‘hard-hitting’, PR/comms is its softer cousin.

People in every profession should recognise and confront the demands of affective labor as their own, rather than setting them up in opposition to ‘real’ work.

At the same time, I believe that PR/comms is basically treated with disdain because it is “pink collar work”. The term is used to refer to careers in which soft skills, such as building and maintaining close relationships with industry folk, fostering trust, being detail-oriented, being creative, having the ability to multitask, taking care of people’s needs, and possessing empathy, are the focus.

These skills are important for any career. But they are particularly relevant for PR/comms professionals, whose performance largely depends on how well they understand human behaviour.

In fact, our dislike for PR/comms feels sexist to an extent. The aforementioned skills are also often associated with the emotional labour (a process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job) that women are expected to perform, from the workplace to the home.

Ling, who handles fashion and lifestyle brands, adds that the areas of PR/comms which are associated with each gender also differ.

Fashion and lifestyle-skewed PR, a field that women are supposedly more keen on and more accepted to take, is seen as ‘frivolous’. This is in contrast to more ‘serious’ PR, where the man is supposedly saving corporations from disgrace. That’s the discrimination and divide here when we think about PR/comms.”

On top of this, because of the perceived prestige and glamour attached to this industry, PR/comms will never be considered meaningful to society, unlike nursing or social work.

Ling adds, “The common perception is that ‘hosting’ of any nature falls into a feminised role. PR/comms is a lot more than mere hosting and socialising, but there is an undeniable misconception that PR/comms folk just throw glamourous event parties and flounce around.”

It appears quite simple: we don’t take PR/comms work seriously, because we don’t take women seriously.

"PR offers women the opportunity to hold high-level, corporate positions, so the career-oriented find empowerment in a PR position." — The Atlantic, 2014
Within the industry, where majority of players are female, it’s a different matter. The spirit feels a lot more collaborative, argues Clarissa, who admits she and her friends always joke about how men are “awful at communication”.

“It’s nice to liaise with women, who I feel are more understanding than men, making the workflow smoother. That’s not to say all guys are hard to work with—I’ve had my fair share of difficult women as well!”

Similarly, Samantha, who works in an agency, feels that being female in this industry can be advantageous because of the social nature of the work. She explains that society has conditioned women to “be the mayonnaise that holds it all together”.

“Ironically, while there are a large number of women working in PR/comms, you’d still find that C-Suite level positions are predominantly held by men,” she adds.   

Being the only male employee in his agency for 2.5 years, Lewis appreciated being the “token dude”. Working with women helped him understand why people would think women are more suited for PR/comms roles.

While he doesn’t want to speak on behalf of the industry, he thinks “more women are in PR/comms because they’re great listeners and relationship builders, which are skills that consultants in this sector really require”.

This is similar to the views of Jarrel, the only other male I spoke to. He emphasised that learning empathy was the best and most underrated takeaway from this job.

“We put our ‘marketer’ hat on all the time that we don’t see things from the perspective of an average consumer. So I constantly try to put myself into the consumer’s shoes, whether as a 20-year-old polytechnic graduate or a 45-year-old homemaker, and answer this question: ‘Why should I care?’”

Personally, I think it’s important to remember why males, the minority in the PR/comms industry, chose this profession. Since they are less likely to shoulder the burden of sexism, they are objectively able to appreciate what truly makes the industry tick. For instance, the ability to think on one’s feet is an art that can only be perfected over time.

Where emotional labour is concerned, compartmentalisation is a crucial survival skill. Women intrinsically understand that too much caring can lead to burnout, so it’s important to “salvage a sense of self-esteem, to define the job as ‘illusion making’, and to remove the self from the job”. Conversely, men may be able to disengage more readily since they don’t have unrealistic gendered expectations placed upon them.

The biggest irony is that PR/comms is often frowned upon. Yet without PR/comms functions in many companies, these companies would repeatedly fail at communicating their key messages clearly and compassionately.

Regardless of gender, an excellent PR/comms professional is a godsend. In order to view PR/comms as an aspirational career and not a backup plan, we must change our perception of the entire industry.

In my opinion, this necessitates that we first reframe our perspective of the type of work that women do.

Are you in PR or comms? We want to hear from you—and we don’t mean a pitch. Write in: community@ricemedia.co / grace@ricemedia.co

Author

Grace Yeoh Senior staff writer