ANALYSIS: Women in PR research shatters a few myths - Networking group Women in PR marked its 40th anniversary last week with a survey claiming the glass ceiling has finally been shattered and discrimination is now a thing of the past

Outside the industry the image of women in PR still owes much to the champagne-swigging luvvie stereotypes of Absolutely Fabulous. While this myth no longer endures within the industry, a survey carried out by Women in PR (WPR) to mark its 40th anniversary should finally put it to rest.

Around 200 women of all ages and levels were surveyed by Sharp End InfoSeek for the report - around half were not WPR members. The results show that far from being under-qualified dilettantes - another stereotype - the average woman in PR is likely to possess a degree or vocational qualification and work as the main family breadwinner.

More than 50 per cent of the women surveyed were graduates - a further ten per cent having a post-grad qualification. Of those who were married or co-habiting, 47 per cent were the main breadwinners.

And instead of beating her fists against a glass ceiling, sexual discrimination in PR was simply not an issue for the average respondent. More than half those surveyed were either 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' that women in PR were not discriminated against in terms of promotion and salary.

When asked what single change could most improve their job almost all respondents mentioned factors other than discrimination. 'A better understanding (by clients) of what PR could do' and 'less admin' were the two most commonly mentioned potential improvements.

Yet women in PR are not celebrating just yet. Rather than a glass ceiling, a quarter of respondents believed the pressures of family life and upward pressure from eager, younger newcomers were more likely to be holding back their careers.

In many ways the picture that emerged from the survey matches expectations.

Around 70 per cent of the respondents worked in consumer and lifestyle PR, with 80 per cent working for an agency rather than in-house.

Nearly 75 per cent had been in the industry for more than ten years and 40 per cent had more than 20 years' experience in PR. Almost half of those surveyed (47 per cent) said they were freelance, while a further eight per cent ran their own firms.

Yet this is one of several responses that has been met with surprise from women in the industry.

IPR assistant director Ann Mealor says only 20 per cent of IPR members are freelance. And while saying that the IPR does not consider a glass ceiling holds women back, she points out that the IPR's last membership survey in 1998 had shown that whereas the representation of the sexes in PR was split 50-50 across all levels, men dominate senior roles.

WPR chairman Lynne Parker says significant changes have occurred since the IPR survey and believes this is one of the main findings of the survey: 'Women in PR simply don't see a glass ceiling in the way they did 40 years ago,' she says. 'My personal view is that we're becoming a benchmark for other industries.'

Parker expressed surprise at the view among 47 per cent of respondents that work-life balance was easier to achieve in-house than in agency jobs, saying that she thinks that while there is probably more 'onus on the PRO to perform in a consultancy' there are better opportunities to achieve flexibility in senior in-house roles.

AS Biss & Co chairman Adele Biss goes even further in response to the glass ceiling question: 'I don't think it's ever been an issue.'

Even when Biss entered the industry in 1978, she says she saw a greater number of female MDs and senior executives than in other industries, and believes that talented PROs had always been able to achieve success - regardless of gender.

Biss says that in any client relationship industry work/life balance would always be difficult to achieve as stress patterns would be dictated by clients' needs.

But she adds that while domestic help has always been a major concern among female PROs with families, these women tend to bring the same organisation to these arrangements as they did to their work, reducing the burden.

For Christina Bowman, currently Hill & Knowlton director of professional and financial services, but due to take up a position as director of corporate communications at insurer AXA later in the month, the preponderance of high-ranking female PROs indicates women can succeed in the profession as easily as men.

Bowman points out that her appointment to AXA - in the traditionally male-dominated financial services sector - shows stereotypes are crumbling.

She also believes the industry has 'developed tremendously' and become increasingly family-friendly over the past 15 years.

So is there any downside to all this positive news? The divorce rate among female PROs is higher than the national average - but at 18 per cent compared to a national average of 16 per cent, it hardly constitutes cause for concern.

And, as one female PRO whispered: 'Maybe those under-achieving partners' egos simply can't deal with earning less than their wives.'

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