Women in Public Relations. An insight story

Six out of ten PR specialists are women. It seems to be an extra-feminized sector. At the same time, decision-making in PR is extra-masculinized. Glass ceiling, salary discrepancies and different kinds of assignments based on gender are the issues discussed for almost 40 years, but still taking the lead as industry problems. Read the history of women in PR and relieving stories of female PR founders from around the World.

Between 60% to 75% of PR specialists are women. Yet, they get lower salaries than their male colleagues and are governed by males. This is shifting, but rather slowly. We have gathered the most important phenomena regarding this problem, facing them with real human stories from recent years. We hope you will enjoy such a mix. Read it wholly or choose the part mostly appealing to you right now:

How have we created this article? (Contributors)

At Enterie, a global network of independent PR firms, we are lucky enough that 64% of our Partner agencies are owned, led, or co-led, by women. Obviously, it has never been a decisive factor in choosing our Partners. (Actually, we checked it and did the math only for the purpose of this text.) We just search for good PR firms across the world, check them carefully, then give some minor projects – and then they become our official Partners. At the end of the day, it turns out that the majority of reliable partners are supervised by women entrepreneurs. 🙂

So, we gave them a voice. We believe it offers a broader perspective on the problems we want to address in this article.

Read these inspiring stories of bold PR female leaders. Learn about the obstacles they have tackled across their business journey and lessons that might be helpful for all women starting their careers in PR.

Thank you for your insights,

Do you disagree?

A little disclaimer at the beginning. We strongly advocate for all women. As the network, we promote gender equality not only in PR but in business in general.

However, please notice that the perspectives you will get to know in a moment are from different parts of the world: from Chicago, Illinois, to Dallas, Texas. From Central Europe, including Germany, to Dubai in the Middle East. From Eastern-Europe Poland, close to Ukraine’s war zone, to the Spanish coast of Barcelona.

Something that is very obvious in the part of the world you live in, might be still revolutionary to those living under different geographical latitudes and longitudes. So, please be thoughtful and respectful when reading, but also don’t hesitate to drop the authors a line (contact details at the end).

Let’s start with some facts and numbers.

There are many women in PR. A few on a C-level

In the US there is an interesting gender imbalance in PR. For starters, 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 30% of PR agencies are actually run by female leaders. Other report quotes 75% of women in the industry, while 20% in senior-level positions.

“I’ve always found this peculiar in my observations of other PR professionals that I’ve met. 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 in to stabilize the imbalance,” says DeAnna Spoerl, who is co-leading Chicago-based consultancy Bear Icebox Communications with her husband, Bob.

From women to women. Learnings from women CEOs in PR

Our jobs are like P.I.E.

I’ve learned that much of the work we do in PR is a major learning curve for our clients. In some ways it can be frustrating having to explain why we do what we do! But when you take a step back and realize that our jobs are like P.I.E. — persuading, informing and educating (but less tasty) our clients along the way, there is something quite rewarding about that. I tend to view the prospecting phase and onboarding as a moment to enlighten and engage both prospects and clients on the processes of PR. I’ve found that there are many misunderstandings of what PR is, why to have a PR team and truly what PR can do for a business.

DeAnna Spoerl

Shama Hyder, an entrepreneur and bestselling author, goes even further: “I recently learned that only .1% (that’s right, POINT 1 percent) of advertising and marketing agencies are owned by women. As for agencies owned by women of color? There isn’t even enough data to pull together that statistics. While there may be more women in PR, there are very few in leadership positions.”

These trends seem to have no borders. Let’s go to Europe, known for its strong feminist movement.

According to ADC data (the Association of Communication Consultants in Spain), the average number of women on staff in PR agencies is nearly 73%. However, the percentage of women on Spanish board committees in PR agencies is 57%. In Portugal, the contrast is even greater, according to data from the European Communication Monitor 2020, 74% of communication departments and agencies have a majority of women, but only 37% have women as leaders.

Even in the Middle East, where the PR industry has been slightly female-dominated, historically speaking. “In recent years, I’ve noticed a tendency to hire women rather than men,” observes Nathalie Visele based in Dubai. “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’.

“Personally, I think that in order for any sector to thrive, the primary consideration when hiring should always be to appoint the best person for the job in question. If the PR industry is able to focus on equality of opportunity and ability rather than demographic statistics in isolation, diversity should follow automatically.”

But does it? Let’s investigate that.

History of feminization in Public Relations

No doubt some progress is made. The industry was totally masculinized until World War II, which “spurred this development because women were able to enter jobs previously occupied by men who, at the time, were engaged in battle overseas,” writes Taylor U. Beatty in the scholar piece “A Historical and Analytical Study of Feminization in the Field of Public Relations”.

Notable exceptions were communication specialists such as Anne Williams Wheaton, the associate press secretary of President Dwight Eisenhower, Lorena Hickock, one of the first American journalists, later on very close to Roosevelt’s administration, or Doris Fleischman, feminist and wife to Edward L. Bernays, one of the fathers of PR. 

The author continues: “The public relations field experienced a growth spurt in the 1950s as the production of consumer goods multiplied, more people obtained quality educations, an increased number of people became part of the white-collar workforce, and technology advanced in several areas, including television and the mainframe computer.” At this time, women have begun to be appointed to high-profile positions.

According to Anastasios Theofilou, the author of the recently published book “Women in PR History”, the topic of feminization of PR arose in the US in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Two reports that were essential contributions to the discussion are “Velvet Ghetto” (1986) and “Glass ceiling” (1991). Three major concerns were:

  • the salary discrepancies between male and female PR specialists,
  • differences in kinds of assignments (women: comms “technician” – thanks to their “soft skills”; men: managers and executives,)
  • and male leadership in PR.

Sounds familiar after 30+ years? Yeah, that’s where we are…

Do women have any strengths over men in PR?

No, they don’t. And men have no particular strengths over women in the field of Public Relations either.

“Ultimately, we are all unique and everyone has different ways of working. The important thing to remember is that, regardless of gender, it takes a broad range of perspectives to grow a successful PR company,” reasons Nathalie Visele, co-managing PR firm in Dubai.

On the other hand, some claim women aremore easy-going than men, or more empathetic, which is obviously very helpful in the field of communication. “I don’t know if it’s really gender-specific, but at least in my experience, I have faced that,” says Martina Hausel from a Germany-based PR consultancy. “That’s certainly an advantage in PR, because empathy is the basic requirement for any kind of targeted communication and successful selling, which largely defines our work.”

From women to women. Learnings from women CEOs in PR

Empathy is important, and discussion — too!

PR and our work often require explanation and for me, empathy is an important approach: only through the necessary change of perspective you can manage to understand all the client’s needs and implement them accordingly. But not as an “extended workbench” of the client, but as the expert who knows how PR works. This can only be achieved by communicating in clear messaging, frank and bold, and sometimes even with tough but relevant discussions with the client.

Martina Hausel

DeAnna Spoerl would agree with that: “If I had to take a stab at it, I would also say that females are sometimes more focused on the emotional side of work. We want to do well and make sure others around us are doing well (not to say that males never feel this way). However, more males are driven by the dollar (whether it’s to support a family or to climb up the corporate ladder).”

“In this way, one could argue that females tend to be more work-focused while males are more money-focused and therefore place themselves (and each other) in positions of power more regularly.”

Nathalie Visele says: “In my experience, men often prefer to frame things in terms of facts, whereas the women I’ve worked with have tended to be more intuitive. Of course, I’ve also met lots of intuitive men and plenty of fact-focused women, so I certainly wouldn’t claim this to be a universally applicable rule.”

Magda Górak, CEO of a tech PR firm in Poland, argues with this. “I don’t like to divide strengths into male and female ones. I believe that either someone is tenacious, hard-working, smart or they are not and it has little or nothing to do with gender. Stereotypically, of course, women are attributed more soft skills, men more determination and bravery etc. However, it would be good to get out of these cliches and divisions eventually.”

We are personally attached to such an approach and recommend it. Attributing skills to gender can lead to problems discussed in already mentioned reports from the late 80s. and 90s.: women being assigned to soft skills jobs, like media relations, and men to strategic thinking and decision making…

Alessandra Colao, who is leading a PR agency in Milan, Italy, agrees that female leadership is not specific nor different to men, with one exception: “Female leaders are more likely to be a mentor and a coach. And for sure I’m really satisfied when I realize that some of my colleagues have grown up.”

“But generally speaking, I think each person is different and has a different approach. Still, the glass ceiling persists,” Alessandra concludes.

The challenges women face in Public Relations

Interestingly, very often the reasons why women have broken the glass ceiling and created their own PR agencies (now very successful), are caused by the realisation that it exists and being fed up with it.

Here are some encouraging stories, which happened as a response to extremely discouraging phenomenons:

Glass ceiling

Magdalena Górak started her agency in Warsaw, Poland, a dozen years ago primarily because the culture of her previous workplace didn’t allow women to the top. “Perhaps if I had seemed more ‘masculine’ to my bosses – that is, stereotypically more business aggressive – I would have had chances for promotions. However, I don’t know for sure,” she tells us.

Finally, setting up her PR consultancy seemed redeeming: “I felt that I would be able to run the business my own way, according to my beliefs and values,” Magdalena explains.

Motherhood

Europe, Scandinavia and Germany in particular, are known for their generous medical-, insurance-, and also maternity- government support. However, it hasn’t always been that way, and even it is not sufficient if the mindset of an employer is not encouraging for parents (all of them, actually, not only mothers).

Martina Hausel from Munich, Germany, shares her story. She started her professional career in the early 2000s as an employee in an agency: “When several colleagues wanted to return to work from parental leave, there was no possibility in the industry in Germany for a part-time mother to get back into the business in a meaningful way.”

This one particular thing led her to the step of self-employment with her own agency.

Respect from C-level staff (mostly men)

Thought leadership, public appearances of the top leadership, scheduling interviews with the journalists and preparing for them, crisis management consultancy to the board – that is a PR pro’s daily bread. And it all deals with being in touch with the C-level of a given organisation. No matter if we are talking about internal PR teams, or external PR agencies.

According to the Excellence Theory of PR by James E. Grunig, PR specialists should be placed very high in the hierarchy of the organisation, and close to (preferably: in) decision-making bodies. Sadly, it is still not always the case.

Now, remember, that roughly 70% of PR employees are women. Imagine how disrespectfully they might be contacted, e.g. during crisis situations (not necessarily caused by them).

Alessandra highlights this aspect of work in the industry: “In the PR sector, we have to manage with C-levels, and I always try to teach my team of Doppia Elica, which is 100% female, that they deserve respect.”

“At my agency, we work heavily in technology sectors/businesses so many of our subject matter experts are male, however, we don’t shy away from this,” says Ranbir Sahota of Vitis PR.

Network

Shama Hyder, now a marketing influencer and best-selling author, shares her incredible story with us: “When most people start agencies, they have a ready-built network of potential clients, vendors, contacts—I had none of that. I was just 22 years old, and on top of that, I was selling something most people didn’t know a thing about. 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. I knew that I’d have to convince people to give my business a try.

That meant I’d have to do two things:

  1. Get them to trust me.
  2. Give away so much value they’d be crazy to go with anyone else.

I focused on building my relationships, which meant helping in any way I could. I didn’t care if you were a Fortune 500 or a mom-and-pop shop down the street—if I had something of value I could offer, I’d offer it.

I also walked my talk. I used social media daily to connect with people, share knowledge, and build my network. I responded to every single comment or tweet or interaction I received. I still try and do this!”

Time & FOMO

Most of the ‘trials’ for new PR pros and new entrepreneurs are probably equal, regardless of gender. For Magdalena, the challenge at the beginning was “to find herself in time”:

“As an entrepreneur, you can dedicate whole days to work. FOMO is hard to control and it is difficult to give yourself time off. In the first two years, I needed to learn how to deal with contractors – how to prepare contracts, how to behave when they fall behind with payments. Business maturity comes with the number of months and years pursued,” Magdalena says.

Women – background players

Bear Icebox Communications started about 7 years ago in Chicago under the supervision of partners Bob and DeAnna Spoerl. “Despite that, I saw myself as a background player at the agency. I felt comfortable being behind the scenes handling admin work and business development. Over the years, I realized that my role as a leader was not only important but an integral part for the success of the business,” says DeAnna.

“Often I even forget how impactful my voice can be in front of clients, prospects and our team. My skills in listening, communicating and customer service shine in my role as Director of Client Services.”

Male experts vs. female experts?

Some would say women can be even better in PR connected to lifestyle or fashion. Well, again, this sounds kind of stereotypical to us. 🙂 Let’s grab the example from our Italian, Milan-based agency (and you know what Milan is the capital of, right?):

“In Doppia Elica we love tech, digital, startups, ecommerce, AI, Martech, fintech, healthtech, automotive. We look at the future!,” says Alessandra.

Our partners prove that there is no such thing as male specialisation or female specialisation.

Why do women become leaders in PR?

Each person has a different story. Some are connected with an imbalance in the sector and the need to create their own safe workspaces – this was presented in the section above. Here we focus on other angles of their stories.

Martina and Ranbir originate from entrepreneur families, which somehow influenced their decisions:

“I always had the image in my mind of being an entrepreneur myself one day,” claims Martina.

“My father ran his own businesses and so the idea of owning a business has never phased me,” says Ranbir. And continues:

“There is a lot of responsibility, but the flexibility and ability to choose the direction of a business has always appealed to me. The catalyst to opening Vitis PR came when I found there was not much tech PR provision outside of London.” (Vitis PR office is in Birmingham, central UK).

From women to women. Learnings from women CEOs in PR

Trust your guts

Trust your instincts and share them with your team and clients. There is some validity in going with your gut feeling. Sometimes a campaign that a client thinks will be great, just won’t hit the mark in terms of exposure. Clients can be adamant but if you don’t see it working, and there are no acceptable alternatives, take the brave step of saying no. Sometimes a campaign will work for internal comms, social media or other avenues, but just not for PR. It’s better to be honest and share that gut feeling earlier rather than later.

Ranbir Sahota

Ramnita has already been working as a PR freelancer in the US. When returning back home to Lithuania, one of the Baltic countries in Eastern Europe, she noticed a huge demand for tech PR. “There were all these local startups and tech companies that needed to have their voices heard, and I felt this was the right time to start an agency,” Ramnita recalls.

Finally, almost everyone can relate to Deborah Gray’s experience:

“I remember graduating and thinking… Now what? What should I do? Where do I go? The world seemed so big and so open with no clear path ahead. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a career, I had ‘narrowed it down’ to teaching, politics or journalism.

“And as it turned out I have done a bit of all of them. I have worked as a legislative intern on Capitol Hill, as a Press Officer for a children’s charity in Scotland, in the Marketing Department of a major telecoms company and at a PR Agency in London, been an English Teacher in Spain and my current, but by no means final gig, is the Founder of a PR agency that employs more than 40 people in Spain & Portugal.”

Are female PR leaders promoting female employees?

How are female PR leaders building their teams? Do they, for example, promote other women, remembering their own stories and beginnings?

“Female leaders want to promote other women and do understand the obstacles and frustrations they face,” admits Ranbir Sahota. “I believe I am more empathetic to team members with childcare issues, for example, and am ready to provide the flexibility they need to care for others while working in PR.”

“I always wanted to have children AND work myself,” Martina Hausel says, which she does, but to some extent thanks to establishing her own company. “As an employer, I wanted to create and provide an environment in which parents could have both appropriate models and the necessary flexibility. I believe that employers have a great social responsibility here, and as a mentor for female founders, I also see myself in an encouraging and empowering role here.”

“We have to move forward to get more women into management positions,” says Deborah and shares stats of her own company: 84% of Canela staff is female. Moreover, both the Spain Director, the Portugal Director and herself, Managing Director, are women. The same with most of the Heads of Divisions and Account Directors.

From women to women. Learnings from women CEOs in PR

PR is not marketing. You are the expert, not the client

PR is not marketing, and you are the expert in PR — not your client. Even if a client has their own strong ideas — about where an article “should” appear, about the main idea of the campaign or how a press release angle should be developed, if what they want seems more commercial than newsworthy, a PR campaign should be avoided. As a PR professional, you are there to generate news, and to make sure only newsworthy information reaches the media.

Raminta Lilaitė

There is one Enterie team, Doppia Elica from Italy, that is currently 100% female! Other ones, like Blue Oceans from Lithuania and Profeina from Poland, are led by C-level female staff. “I believe that 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,” says Ramnita.

Polish-based Profeina has also started as an all-female team. “Not because that was my preference when recruiting, but because there were more women among the candidates and they performed better in the recruitment tasks,” highlights Magdalena Górak, the owner. “Over time, the proportions evened out. We have no prejudices. The candidates who perform better during recruitment get jobs at Profeina.”

Some people observe that cultural differentiation has started impacting the recruitment process – especially in PR departments and agencies. “This has not been my experience at Shamal Communications because – as I mentioned – we base our hiring decisions on factors such as merit, personality and qualifications, rather than gender or any other superficial factor,” says – in contrary – Nathalie Visele. She runs a renowned PR agency in the Middle East.

So, there is no one preferred model, nor ‘only one desired’ way that a female-led company should be led.

How to start a career in public relations being a woman?

Are you a woman? Do you want to start your journey in Public Relations?

Yes, you can! – that’s the main message we want to leave you with today.

“The good news is there has never been a better time to enter the workplace as a woman,” says Deborah Gray, and continues: “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.”

From women to women. Learnings from women CEOs in PR

Don’t compromise when it comes to equality

To help change the sector, I tell female newcomers that small but consistent changes in behaviour can make all the difference. Challenge the things that you don’t agree with. Don’t compromise when it comes to equality. You have as much right to be the professional you want to be and the parent you want to be as the people you are sharing those vocations with. Your value comes from your contribution not from your gender. Share your knowledge with everyone. Create safe work spaces. Make mistakes. Learn. Don’t make them again. Be kind. Be Happy.

Deborah Gray

What to do for a starter?

Six steps helping better start in PR:

  1. Educate, educate, and educate. If you cannot reach that on the official level, try to learn yourself
  2. Read a lot – industry media, blogs, podcasts. There is plenty of choices (at least in English) nowadays
  3. Try scholarships
  4. Follow good examples. There are some successful comms individuals sharing their knowledge on Twitter or LinkedIn. Follow them, and read/listen to them carefully but critically, as they might just take care of their PR, or PR of their clients 🙂
  5. Try summer internships at PR firms
  6. Find a mentor

PR women influencers to follow. TOP 10 List

Women mentors in business. Find yours

We asked Enterie’s leaders from around the World to share their experiences, stories, and learnings. While they might become role models or mentors to you, they have also been inspired by other women (not necessarily working in the PR industry). Maybe they can be inspirational for you, too? (In brackets you will find, who’s been inspired by her)

Bebe Vio

Focusing on female figures I really love her the strength, energy and abilities. She is an Italian wheelchair fencer, European, World and Paralympic champion. She smiles, she never gives up, she is young but I’m convinced she will play some important role in sport or more. (A. Colao)

Samantha Cristoforetti

She is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut. She is a mother too and she demonstrated to the world that a mother has the same right to “travel” for work as a man! (A. Colao)

Jacinda Adern

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, who has just announced that she will be leaving the post in the next few weeks, is an inspiration for me. She asked people to vote on what to name her daughter, she attended the UN with her baby and breastfed her there… As a female parent, I wish there was more visibility about the reconciliation of the role of a leader and motherhood. We are making progress, but not fast enough. Also, I admire her response to the mosque shooting in Christchurch, when she put on a veil and showed a real gesture of empathy. She has also shown how to leave the post when you have no more gas in the tank. I wish other leaders would do the same. (D. Gray)

Luisa Spagnoli

She was, early in 1900, an Italian businesswoman (one of the first), famous for creating the chocolate factory Perugina and a brand of women’s clothing company. As Adriano Olivetti, she was an innovator and had a humanistic approach to responsible business. (A. Colao)


Thank you to all contributors. 🤝 Your stories inspire us!

Michal Rakowski & Joanna Broniewska
Michal Rakowski & Joanna Broniewska

Michał Rakowski – as a Communication Specialist with 10+ years of experience, he has launched brands for local and international markets. He teaches students about PR and startups at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, Poland.

Joanna Broniewska - PR specialist, freelance journalist, and cultural anthropologist with considerable intercultural experience in her professional and personal life. She has lived in Spain, Chile, and Greece, and is passionate about Andean culture, 20th-century Latin American history, and Pablo Picasso, to whom she dedicated her master’s thesis.

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