Women still make up less than half of the executive committee roles at most large PR firms and only four women lead agencies with more than $100 million in global revenue.
PR agencies, which rely on strong talent to service clients, have long employed a predominately female workforce: a 2008 survey found that 70% of PRSA members were women while industry leaders estimate that women make up two-thirds of the industry's workforce.
Yet the number of women executives, including CEOs, at agencies far from mirrors the large numbers of women who staff agencies and work directly with clients.
Last week, Monique da Silva filed a $100 million class action lawsuit on February 24 against her former employer, MSLGroup and Publicis Groupe, for discrimination against female PR employees.
“Publicis's glass ceiling might as well be a cement wall,” says the lawsuit. “Gender discrimination permeates Publicis's entire PR practice.”
According to a handful of women who spoke on background, the executive teams at most large agencies retain an “old boys club” mentality, often led by the firm's corporate and public affairs stars. Excluding legal, HR, and financial executives, women make up less than half of the executive committees at PR firms with more than $100 million in global revenue.
While several women who have senior roles at PR firms say they have not faced discrimination, many acknowledge the difficulty women face in reaching the executive level at a PR firm and the challenge in balancing a family and a career that can demand extensive travel and long hours.
Many women also pointed out that the discrepancy is with women themselves, who after having children may choose to opt for a track that includes less travel and management responsibilities and a more flexible schedule.
Dale Bornstein, senior partner and director of global practices at Ketchum, says technology and the ability for PR services to be provided from a home or an office is one of the more recent changes that factors into the mix for women contemplating a decision to leave a full-time position.
Women can now choose to successfully work part time for an agency or to leave the agency and establish their own successful consulting businesses. "They see life very differently these days because they can,” says Bornstein.
Yet for women who remain focused on agency careers, the road to the top is still hard to navigate. The agencies that generate more than $400 million in annual revenue – Edelman, MSLGroup, Weber Shandwick, Fleishman-Hillard, Hill & Knowlton, and Ketchum – all have male CEOs.
“It's an issue,” says Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. “I can't tell you it's not.”
Edelman notes that it's a closely watched issue as he is planning for his three daughters to succeed him and adds that an agency's business make-up can play a role in bringing women to executive positions. He says that Edelman's business, in particular its marketing, digital, and health practices, is different than a firm that has built its reputation on public affairs and corporate issues.
Other senior agency professionals who spoke on background noted the reasons why more women are not in leadership positions is multifaceted. Several women who work at agencies cited career flexibility and the understanding of the current executive team to recognize different types of leaders as two necessary tactics.
Yet leadership dynamics are changing and many women leaders in PR are becoming more prominent.
The four women who lead $100 million firms include Margery Kraus, founder and CEO of APCO Worldwide; Donna Imperato, CEO of Cohn & Wolfe; Melissa Waggener Zorkin, president and CEO of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide; and Andrea Brodeur, CEO of Brodeur Partners.
Five of the seven executive positions at Waggener, which was founded by Melissa Waggener and Pam Edstrom, are staffed by women.
Five of the 11 members of Weber Shandwick's executive committee are women, including vice chair Gail Heimann. And seven out of 10 regional presidents at Fleishman-Hillard are women.
In addition, many sister agencies to large PR firms, such as Fleishman-Hillard's TogoRun, Ketchum's Emanate, Cohn & Wolfe's GCI Health, and Edelman's Zeno Group, are led by female CEOs.
What most agency leaders will agree on is that with flexibility – despite its challenges – comes employee retention. Claire Lematta, president of global strategies at Waggener, notes that flexibility allows the firm to retain its best talent.
Martha Boudreau, president of the mid-Atlantic and Latin America for Fleishman-Hillard and a 25-year veteran of the firm, says flexible schedules are successful retention tools for men and women, including those with families. Like Bornstein, she notes the role technology can play in developing flex time.
“Technology has a lot to do with creating the flexibility,” she adds.