PR needs to do better for women

It seems a different PR agency comes under the microscope every week at the moment and after Ogilvy, Weber Shandwick, Hill+Knowlton, and Porter Novelli's recent spells in the spotlight, MSL takes its turn.

It seems a different PR agency comes under the microscope every week at the moment and after Ogilvy, Weber Shandwick, Hill+Knowlton, and Porter Novelli's recent spells in the spotlight, MSL takes its turn this time.

A $100 million class action suit, originally filed in February 2011 by former MSL healthcare director Monique da Silva, alleges the agency and its holding company Publicis Groupe paid women less; did not promote them at the same rate as men; conducted discriminatory demotions, terminations, and reassignments; terminated women after they returned from maternity leave; and created leadership teams consisting of nearly all male executives.

On June 29 a District Court judge announced there was enough evidence to open up the suit for more women to join should they so wish. Then the court documents came into the public domain this week, containing some excruciatingly embarrassing allegations against MSLGroup president of the Americas Jim Tsokanos and Washington MD Neil Dhillon.

One wonders what big MSL clients such as Procter & Gamble, a company that targets women if ever there was one, think of the furor - though it is worth pointing out the global lead on the P&G account is Renee Wilson, a working mother and extremely well-respected PR pro, both inside and outside MSL.

Wilson was appointed chief client officer at MSLGroup and promoted to the global management board in January this year. She reports to Olivier Fleurot, the group's Paris-based CEO.

It would be wrong to draw too many conclusions about this specific case until the results of the suit are determined, and clearly these are just allegations at this stage.

MSL points out that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed the plaintiffs' claims in 2010 and that the group “has been and remains an organization committed to equal opportunity for women and all employees in the workplace.” It adds that the firm “did nothing wrong, and as the case proceeds, it will show that the case has no merit.”

However, it raises once again the wider issue of the lack of women at senior levels of the PR business, especially within agencies – and the wages they get paid compared to their male peers.

Look at the top 12 agencies profiled in PRWeek's Agency Business Report and the paucity of women amongst the most senior managers is striking – the exceptions being Margery Kraus and Melissa Waggener Zorkin.

In an industry where 65-70% of PR pros are women this is not good. Furthermore, PRWeek's Salary Survey this year showed the median base salary for male PR pros with more than five years experience was 35% higher than women. If the case against MSL is proved in that respect, you'd have to say that is a reflection of the wider industry.

In a feature by PRWeek's Brittaney Kiefer that will run in our Career Guide this year, Fleishman-Hillard's senior partner and CMO Stephanie Marchesi says one of the keys to balancing career and family is the ability to be flexible about where, when, and how they get their work done. Global CEO Dave Senay points out: “Most times when I speak to Stephanie I don't know where she is, but I know she's on the job and doing the best she can for clients, Fleishman-Hillard, and for her family.”

That strikes me as a slightly more forward-looking and constructive attitude to women in the workplace than that alleged in the MSLGroup suit.

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