Why there aren't more women at the top in PR

The high proportion of women in the industry is not reflected in its leadership, even when this has been shown to be bad for business.

Taking charge: A recent study showed that organisations with women on the board perform better than ones with exclusively male directors
Taking charge: A recent study showed that organisations with women on the board perform better than ones with exclusively male directors

The past few decades have seen women dominate the PR and communications industry in both agency and in-house roles. We’ve all seen men outnumbered around the water cooler and at PR functions. So with such a high proportion of women it may come as a surprise to learn that the regional heads of Asia-Pacific’s top five agencies are all men.

As a global recruitment business for the PR and communications industry, Prospect has seen the same trend in Singapore and Hong Kong, although there is a slow shift of seeing more women moving up the corporate ladder.

But why has this taken so long? What is standing in the way of strong, capable women who want to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, even in heels, and how can the industry support their ascent?

Great expectations

While the numbers show a shortage of women at the top, this does not mean they are incapable of taking on a leadership role — in fact, quite the opposite. A recent study asking respondents to identify the most desirable traits in a leader found that patience, expressiveness, intuition, flexibility, empathy and other ‘feminine’ characteristics were what they wanted most.Yet there’s still a long way to go for women, in part due to residual gender expectations.

The notion that a woman’s primary role is homemaker has not yet completely disappeared. Women who’ve defied this stereotype may have had to endure a long fight against the assumptions of others.

Beth Smits, head of public affairs and communications at Swift Asia-Pacific, says: "Senior managers often assume that as a married woman with children, I had different work-life considerations than my male counterparts and more limited expectations about growing my own career. One even told me he did not take seriously my offer to move abroad for a role because he didn’t understand how my husband could agree to move."

Powers of negotiation

It’s been debated that deeply ingrained gender traits make it difficult for many women to successfully negotiate their work contracts and secure top roles. When it comes to salary negotiations, women are significantly less likely to negotiate for higher salaries then men, making it no surprise that men in Singapore are paid 15 per cent more than women. Of course, an individual’s personality and qualifications can make them an exception to this rule, but in general, even high-powered and outwardly successful women often struggle at the negotiating table.

"Women generally look at pay gratefully rather than as a measure of worth," says Sara Norton, a communications expert in the financial services industry. "There is a degree of guilt and hesitation involved in requesting a raise, and crucially, women look at their performance critically rather than celebrating success."

Negotiations in the workplace extend far beyond compensation and can affect one’s ability to secure a promotion or more flexible working conditions. Thus it is crucial for women to take control of the negotiating conversation as a way to increase salary, have a better work-life balance and propel their careers forward and upward.

Lack of role models

Many women point to the lack of role models as a major barrier to success. After all, if women aren’t represented at the higher levels of an organisation, it becomes difficult for others to identify themselves as capable of securing a seat at that table. Clare Williams, director of Asia-Pacific corporate communications at Barclays, says: "There are a number of great female role models in senior comms positions, but they tend to be agency side or in FMCG. It is harder to break into the senior positions in financial services. I think this is partly the unconscious bias factor at play, but also because the sector-wide female attrition you see at VP/director level means there are fewer senior women candidates to choose from."

With fewer role models to look up to, women find it hard to navigate the path to the top, and even harder to navigate office politics. The notion of a boys club is alive and well in the corporate world and a lack of gender diversity plays a role in isolating women.

Gender diversity is not just about employing more women, it’s about the business results to be gained from having a more gender diverse workforce. A recent study showed that organisations with women on the board saw a positive effect on performance in terms of return on assets and return on equity, proving that having women in top roles isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.

One step at a time

While equality for women in the workplace is improving, significant attention and resources must be focused on recruiting, retaining and developing female leaders. There are three key actions that would help women ascend the corporate ladder more quickly: gender diversity as a standard practice in recruitment, exposure to the wider organisation and community support from other women in business.

At Prospect, we are finding a growing number of clients are hiring with gender diversity guidelines, offering equal opportunity for both men and women. This is certainly a step in the right direction. But we also need to make sure that after recruitment, female leaders of the future are given the right exposure to allow them to move up the ladder.

"To empower women in communications, we need to rotate them out of communications," says Smits. "Many men who lead communications functions come from outside of the traditional communications career path, and by giving female leaders similar opportunities, they will gain new skills, broaden their network and be perceived more competitively vis-à-vis male candidates."

Creating a framework

Once women are making it to the top in higher numbers, we need to ensure this becomes the normal way of doing business. Tulchan Communications director Jean Zhuang says: "We need to create and formalise an industry standards framework for the communications sector, under which best practices should be established to support the development of women in communications.

"This framework should ideally be jointly developed and championed by [government], top women in the communications sector, academia and corporations who pledge to support this cause. Taking a longer-term view, concerted efforts from all parties would help to drive this dialogue into a progressive movement for women not only in communications, but in the corporate world as a whole."

Women need to lead by example and ensure they are participating either as a female leader or in support of one. The industry needs to celebrate the trailblazers so younger women have role models with whom they can identify with. Only then will we see more women proudly climbing the rungs of the corporate ladder.

Emma Dale is co-founder and managing director of Prospect Asia-Pacific

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