Speaking up isn't enough: Taking action against gender norms

As we continue to hear from industry stalwarts that women simply need to speak up, we clearly need a substantive review and dialogue

Heather Whaling
Heather Whaling

What does it mean to "act like a man?" What does it mean to "act like a lady?"

When groups are asked this question, words like "strong" and "leader" are frequently used to describe men, while women are seen as nurturing or collaborative.

Gender norms like these are the popular or conventional ideas most people have about what it means to be a man or a woman. These norms are learned from experiences in family, friends, places of worship, schools, and media consumption. Over time, they’re seen as "the way things are."

That status quo is limiting. It’s damaging for society to see men as weak when they display emotion. It’s damaging for women to be seen as bossy when they speak up at work. While much progress has been made, the reality is that there is a lot of work to be done before equality is achieved—particularly in the public relations industry, as we were reminded this week.

Seventy percent of the PR industry is female; yet, only 30% of agency leaders are female. On a Hall of Femme panel last week, Richard Edelman suggested that women need to speak up more loudly if they feel their voices aren’t being heard in the corporate environment.

Yes, women need to lean in, seize opportunities, and make their ambitions known. However, a leadership gap as sizeable as the one facing in the PR industry won’t be significantly narrowed if we downplay or ignore systemic barriers.

Women simply speaking up won’t fix antiquated workplace policies, salary disparity, or unequal hiring practices. If it was that easy, does anyone honestly think we’d still be having these conversations?

What changes need to happen to help men and women overcome gender norms and implicit biases? Here are three ideas, for starters.

Show me the money
The pay gap in the industry is astonishing, with men making $36,000 per year more than women, according to PRWeek’s annual Salary Survey. HR departments should audit salaries to assess where gaps are occurring and how salaries can be right-fitted to ensure men and women performing the same duties are fairly compensated.

Equal pay, equal benefits
Only 13% of American workers have access to paid parental leave. PR agencies shouldn’t wait for a national standard to be enacted. Companies of all sizes are proactively implementing paid parental leave, but let’s be clear: If we believe in equal pay, then we also need to believe in equal benefits. The "mommy tax" –  the term to explain why women with children make significantly less than women without children – exists in part because child care disproportionately falls to women. Research shows it’s better for moms, dads, and kids when parents share care-giving responsibilities. Workplace policies that limit parental leave to moms reinforce the antiquated gender norm that says mom is the caregiver and dad’s career is more important. As an industry, PR needs to be more forward-thinking than that.

Gender by us
Implicitly and explicitly, we are forcing people to adhere to gender-based stereotypes. If we want to solve sexism, pay inequity, discriminatory hiring practices – among the other ailments affecting industry growth, we must understand and solve for the root cause of the problem: gender norms that place artificial limits on men and women. Part of the challenge is that we, collectively, aren’t discussing gender norms and the broader impact on families and workplaces. What if agencies across the country used tools like the Gender By Us toolkit to engage in meaningful conversation and generate change? That would be a massive step in the right direction.

As we continue to hear from industry stalwarts that women simply need to speak up—research shows that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments—we clearly need a substantive review and dialogue. This list is hopefully a helpful starting point.

Assess workplace policies through a gender lens. Identify and safeguard against implicit and explicit biases. Require honest dialogue about gender norms at all levels of the organization. Providing men and women equal access to opportunities means we need to be done with "the way it’s always been done."

Heather Whaling is founder and president of Geben Communication, a boutique agency with offices in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago.

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