Public affairs' continuing failure to attract and retain women is a dispiriting lost opportunity

The public affairs industry needs to change; that much is clear from the polling we've done of women working across the sector.

The public affairs sector must support women or risk losing them from the workforce altogether, argues Laura Sainsbury
The public affairs sector must support women or risk losing them from the workforce altogether, argues Laura Sainsbury

"This is a man’s world", as the song goes – and it appears this is still true in public affairs. 

Looking at the data it is disappointing (although perhaps not surprising) to see so many women reflecting negatively on their experience in the industry. 

Half of respondents say they have suffered discrimination based on gender, while more than a quarter have experienced sexual harassment.

Perhaps more shockingly, nearly one in three women rated the industry as poor at protecting and helping women deal with sexual harassment, and just four per cent said they thought the industry was good at dealing with it. 

Many describe a "laddish" culture or persisting "old boy's network", with one respondent calling it a "macho" industry. 

Of course this won't be everyone's experience, and I know there will be many women who won’t recognise some of the things highlighted by the data. 

But it's clear that many others do – and that means we are not doing enough. Every woman that leaves the sector or chooses to make her career elsewhere is a huge lost opportunity.

Public affairs is an industry with influence. 

We are professionals who operate in and around politics, helping to develop and implement policy.

We need to be an industry that has room for all voices and experiences – male and female – or we will be weaker in the decisions we make and the advice we give.

There has been some progress.

Earlier this year the PRCA's own sexual harassment survey revealed similarly troubling statistics. There is now a working group looking at the issue. 

I wrote then about the need for industry to work together to address this and face up to the need to have uncomfortable conversations. 

This still needs to happen.

But there are also structural issues around pay and progression that can only be addressed by employers themselves. 

Nearly half of respondents believed their pay differed from their male counterparts, indicating ongoing issues with transparency in this arena.

Additionally, in our view there has been too little transparency across the sector in publishing gender pay gaps. 

Many organisations in the public affairs industry are too small to report, but where reporting has happened it has rarely been good news for women.

The Government Equalities Office has set out some interesting evidence-based recommendations on reducing the gender pay gap and reducing gender equality in organisations. 

This includes effective actions that have been tested in real-world settings and found to have a positive impact. 

These are the inclusion of multiple women in shortlists for recruitment and promotions, the use of skill-based assessment tasks in recruitment, the use of structured interviews for recruitment and promotions, transparency around salary ranges, and the appointment of diversity managers and/or diversity task forces. 

I hope that agencies and in-house employers across the sector look to these to see how they might be applied in public affairs. 

The time for dithering and delaying is over. If the industry can't attract and retain women, everyone loses out. 

Our members lose out on opportunities, the profession misses out on a diverse range of ideas so organisations aren’t provided with quality advice, ultimately negatively impacting policy and legislation. 

We’re losing the war for talent among half the population – and if we’re going to fix that we need the whole industry to work together. 

Laura Sainsbury is the chair of Women in Public Affairs (WiPA)

Click here to subscribe to the new, FREE public affairs bulletin to receive dedicated public affairs news, features and comment straight to your inbox.

Make sure you register for the site to access more than one story per month.

To submit a news, comment, case study or analysis idea for the public affairs bulletin, email

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in