Where have all the role models gone? Ageism is rife in the PR industry

Most of us in comms learn on the job and the value of a good role model as you develop is crucial.

Ageism in the PR industry must be urgently addressed, argues Kate Clark
Ageism in the PR industry must be urgently addressed, argues Kate Clark

When you started in comms, the door opened because of your CV, qualifications and charm – but you soon realised that you learn the real stuff by listening to and watching those who’ve been in the game longer than you.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard from women in their 30s who have left big agencies recently that one of the reasons they left is they looked around and thought: where have all the role models gone? How will I continue to learn? And is this agency going to value me when I’m in my 40s or 50s? With few women practitioners over the age of 40, it doesn’t look like it.

And my hunch is that this issue is widespread.

Data behind the ageism hunch

As part of our WPR 45 Over 45 campaign, Women in PR ran a survey this year polling 218 women. We discovered that a third (34 per cent) of the women working in PR that we spoke to have experienced ageism in the workplace. Over half (52 per cent) of those under the age of 50 don’t see themselves working in the same part of the comms industry they currently work in when they reach 50 – and a fifth (19 per cent) expect to leave the comms industry to work in another industry, rising to a quarter (26 per cent) of those aged 18-34.

Inspiring the next generation of female leaders

WPR champions equality and progress for senior women in PR in the UK with a remit to increase the number and diversity of women in leadership roles in comms – and support them to reach their full potential.

Nurturing and inspiring the next generation of female leaders is the spirit behind the WPR Mentoring Programme that has been matching senior industry talent with rising stars for seven years. We can’t do that if a woman’s career journey ends in her early 40s.

So our ‘WPR 45 over 45’ list will be the first of its kind to feature the women who are inspiring the next generation of women leaders and shaping a brighter future for the sector.

Women and the pandemic factor

We know that women have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, with many balancing home-schooling, housework, care responsibilities and paid work. In July 2020, the scientific journal Nature published early findings to show that female professors were publishing fewer pre-prints and research papers than their male counterparts.

So how should PR respond?

Yes, budgets are challenging right now – but companies can take a flexible approach on how to retain senior talent. Put ageism into your ED&I strategy. Create forums for open discussions. Consider the capacity to create freelance consultancy roles and internal mentoring or sponsorship schemes to match senior talent with junior, like we do at WPR. These are all places to start.

Currently, 42 per cent of our female workforce is telling us that there aren’t enough career opportunities for older women to progress in the comms industry.

In our survey one comms director, aged 45, told us: “There is a huge amount of ageism in PR – I dread leaving an industry I have spent over 20 years in.”

This is why it matters. Let’s not lose more great role models.

Kate Clark is a Women in PR Committee member and director of KCPR KateClarkPR

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