The ceiling breakers

Women have gained CEO status, but does that end all gender talk?

Women have gained CEO status, but does that end all gender talk?

When PRWeek wrote a feature on women in PR last year, several interviewees felt it was only a matter of time before a woman became CEO of a top ten agency. One agency head predicted it would happen in the next five years. Now, just one year later, not one, but two women have taken over those top spots. Helen Ostrowski replaced David Copithorne as CEO of Porter Novelli on May 22 of this year and Marcia Silverman became CEO of Ogilvy a few months later, on August 13, when Bob Seltzer stepped down. Although women have been leading small and midsize agencies, as well as offices within the top ten for years, the CEO spot in the largest agencies seemed to be unreachable. That perpetuated discussion about whether or not women were being given equal opportunity in the industry, a question that seemed especially pertinent given that PR is a field in which women outweigh men approximately two to one. The shattering of that glass ceiling begs the question: Is this the last time an article like this needs to be written? Most leading ladies, and those they work with, think so. "I don't think we need another story on women," says Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of PR Firms. Now that all of the posts have been covered, she thinks continuing to talk about the gender issue becomes trite, given the larger issues corporate America is faced with today. "Economics drive decisions about leadership, and in tough times people want good leaders. That is the bottom line. Gender has nothing to do with it." Women and trust That we are enduring a challenging economic climate is a fact that few will disagree with, but some have refuted the idea that gender is an irrelevant factor in how management is handled in such an environment. An article appearing in Fast Company last month says, "For all their macho posing, most men are simply conflict averse...They do anything they can to avoid sitting down with one another and telling the truth...Isn't that the most plausible explanation for what went on at Enron? The problem isn't that we don't know the truth. The problem is that we're afraid to speak the truth. Well, the truth is, women are much more likely than men to be truth tellers." Ostrowski feels she's never been held back in her career because of her gender. Given her recent promotion that's easy to believe. She feels that there may be some truth to the philosophy that female presence in leadership can be beneficial. "If you look at companies today, I think PR has strayed from its roots - namely, helping stakeholders understand organizations. If an organization doesn't do that, it will not be trusted and won't have a receptive environment to operate in. Women can be extremely powerful in getting PR back to its roots by instilling that trust." However, she is hesitant to commit on the issue of whether or not women's potential as leaders is reflective of one sex being better equipped to handle current challenges, such as downsizing and meshing corporate cultures, than the other. That, according to Ostrowski, "remains a question." Without passing judgment on which sex - if either - is more qualified, the notion that men and women have different managing styles is commonly held. "Women talk more," claims Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. "They are better communicators." And as Edelman's senior lieutenant, COO Pam Talbot points out, "The most important trait for a successful CEO is good interaction abilities, not financial skills." Admittedly at the risk of sounding stereotypical, Talbot says that women tend to be less egocentric, which can make them more effective communicators. Both Edelman and Talbot reiterate that their observations on the differences in managing styles between the sexes does not necessarily mean that generalizations can be made, or that one is always more competent than the other. Aedhmar Hynes, CEO of Text 100, and MaryLee Sachs, president and CEO of the US for Hill & Knowlton - two more senior female players who never felt disadvantaged because of their gender - on the other hand, are uncomfortable with the idea of any kind of discussions about differences between the leadership skills of the two genders. "What it comes down to is who is best for the job," says Sachs. "There are men I don't trust and women I don't trust, and vice versa," says Hynes, who believes categorizing traits like being trustful and empathetic as female-specific does a disservice to her gender. "I have worked damn hard to get to where I am, but so have all the men who are in senior management positions. It is what you make out of it." Women such as Sachs, Talbot, Donna Imperato, CEO of Cohn & Wolfe, Lorraine Thelian, senior partner at Ketchum, and the dozens who lead top-ranking small to midsize firms have actually been industry leaders all along. But as much as PR prides itself on being based on ideas and creativity, rather than on budgets and deadlines, it is still a business. And in business people want to see firm numbers to validate conclusions. Now the number is there: two - a figure certain to increase in the spirit of normality, rather than exception. Still work to do Perhaps that means this will be what Silverman calls the "swan song article" on the subject. That does not justify complacency - especially given that the majority of the senior corporate communications positions are still held by men - but it does perhaps mean that efforts can be focused on other more pressing issues, such as increasing the levels of diversity in the communications business. Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick Worldwide, feels women have made their mark, but admits that he is still not satisfied with the progress his own agency has made in the way of recruiting minorities. "Just ten years ago, there was still a major disparity in the marketplace at the senior level between men and women. Now women are the norm. We need to continue our efforts to maintain that equality in gender and increase efforts in making the same thing happen with all minorities." -------------- Changing times By Marina Maher PR is one business a woman can start without a lot of capital. Nineteen years ago, I started MMC at my dining room table with $300, one client, and a dream. I was interviewing accounting firms, trying to find the right one for a start-up business. One accountant asked me for a business plan, rifled through it, then looked up over his glasses and said, "Very nice. Who helped with this? Your husband?" Three years later we had a chance to pitch a well-known, upscale resort group of hotels. The win would have put us on the map, financially and professionally, so we poured our resources into it. On presentation day, we scored. The three-man committee responded well to our ideas, praised our creativity, and repeatedly noted that our thinking was fresh and our insights eye-opening. They asked questions typical of serious buyers and, as we were leaving, I even got a friendly slap on the back. We figured that sealed the deal. Two days later, the head of the search committee took me to lunch. He said our presentation was far superior to the others and they believed our ideas would grow their business. "Unfortunately, I can't give you the business," he said. "All our general managers at the hotels are men, and you're an agency of all women. That kind of interface just wouldn't work." Since then, things have changed. Three years ago, we were invited to pitch for a consumer electronics account. Male engineers gave us the product tech briefing, and it's amazing they didn't laugh at some of our questions. But we loved the products and immersed ourselves in car stereos and car alarms, GPS, and navigational systems. This time, the issue of women working on male-targeted products never came up. We won the account on the strength of our ideas and the passion we demonstrated for the product. Women thrive in this industry because we're good at it - it taps into our natural abilities. We're highly intuitive, detail-oriented, and have a strong service mentality. We're good at finding the common ground and creating emotional bonds, which is the essence of a brand-target relationship. My advice to all women in PR would be: Don't wait for the spotlight to find you. Get out there and promote yourself, internally and externally, as professionally and aggressively as you market clients.
  • Marina Maher is the founder and president of Marina Maher Communications
  • ------------------------------------ Women Executives in Public Relations In 1945, five female PR execs - an anomaly at the time - were brought together by an industry news editor to speak on a panel. The event led to a small group of women forming the Committee on Women in PR, which held monthly meetings to exchange ideas about the industry and the role women played in it. The group also organized a variety of educational programs. As a result, the first-ever scholarship for PR was established by the group in 1954 at Columbia University. In 1970, the organization changed its name to Women Executives in Public Relations (WEPR). Today, WEPR has over 100 members, starting at the account supervisor level (prior to November of last year, the only members allowed were of the VP level or above), and is led by president Sheila Rose, SVP of media relations for Hullin Metz. Fifty-five percent of WEPR's members are from agencies, 16% from consultancies, 13% from corporations, while 16% come from other areas of the industry. Based in New York, WEPR has members located throughout the world. The Foundation of WEPR was established in 1983 to pursue educational objectives, such as awarding scholarships to students seeking PR careers, and to raise funds for WEPR members. Currently led by president Deb Radman, managing partner at KCSA, the foundation has established a scholarship program which awards money to students majoring in PR every fall and spring semester. The Foundation also sponsors the Foundation of WEPR Awards for Social Responsibility held in the spring. The event recognizes cause-related communications programs in the profit and nonprofit sectors. Currently, the Foundation of WEPR is working with Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Communications to build an archive that documents the history of women in PR. WEPR will host an event this fall to commemorate the project and honor several industry pioneers.

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