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Let’s Bring More Women into PR Leadership Positions

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Art Stevens

As someone who’s been in PR agency life for numerous years, I’ve worked with many more women than men. While studies show that women and men enter the workforce in approximately equal numbers, the sad reality is that women tend to lag in promotions—and leadership roles—from their very first foray into management.

One eye-opening study shows that 75 percent of overall PR practitioners are female, but only 20 percent of PR leaders are women. Why is this the case?

For starters, I think what has held many women down professionally are the antiquated, old-school attitudes long-held by some men: the view that women had nothing to offer in the world of business.

I’ve never found that to be the case. I’m proud of the women who’ve passed through my former public relations firm, which ranked among the top 25 independent firms in the U.S. I’m equally proud to say that a number of women who worked there have gone on to become senior leaders at major agencies and corporations.

I’m also thrilled to have given women the opportunity to blossom professionally and prove themselves worthy of any organization. In fact, I’m still in touch with many of these inspiring females; they’ve helped me professionally over the years in a variety of instances.

When it comes to brains, smarts, talent and professionalism, in my opinion, there’s nothing that can hamper and stunt the professional direction of women today.

I interact and engage with more women PR agency CEOs than men, so I question the premise that not enough women have the top jobs.

PR ahead of the curve for female professionals

While many other industries and professionals are behind in opening the doors to women, the public relations world has been ahead of the curve.

The late Marilyn Laurie, former EVP of PR and brand management at AT&T and past president of the Arthur W. Page Society and the PR Seminar, is a good example. One of the giants of PR, she was the first woman to head up PR for a company the size of AT&T. She’s also known for her communications work contributing to Earth Day’s launch. Laurie truly set the stage for countless females in the PR industry.

Another good example can be seen in the life and experiences of Barri Rafferty, EVP, Head of Communications, Wells Fargo. In a recent discussion we had, she said she believes we’re at a tipping point where big firms are being seen as run by women just as easily as smaller firms.

Rafferty joined Wells Fargo in July 2020 from Ketchum, where she was the agency’s president and CEO, the first woman to be the CEO of a top-five public relations agency. She transformed the agency into a marketing communications consultancy and has been an “intrapraneur,” launching and evolving businesses from digital, social, analytics, influencer, sports, entertainment and experiential.

During our conversation, she recalled how excited they were when her partner group hit 50-50, especially seeing more and more women in top positions.

“Ultimately, both men and women in the field have to be advocates to make sure that we can eliminate the bias in the system and that there are equal opportunities for women to reach those highest ranks and in greater numbers in the future,” she said.

This is powerful advice from someone who was the first female CEO of a top-five global PR firm.

Bridging the gap

I believe there are numerous steps that women can take to improve their position and achieve PR workplace equality.

One is to level the playing field: we must strive to offer women the chance to take up leadership positions without being diminished.

It’s also critical to engage and collaborate on these issues on a more significant scale.

For example, today’s female influencers can utilize their PR and communications skills to create awareness and spread the word about gender bias at the executive levels. With this strategy, more and more female leaders can step up to the cause and leave a better world for future generations.

During a recent interview I had with Marian Salzman, SVP, Global Communications, Philip Morris International, she imparted the following: “I give the same advice to both young women and young men—you must treat everyone in the workplace as you would a fraternal twin. Treat men and women with that same level of care and concern.” Sage words indeed.

Looking ahead

The position of women in the modern world is no doubt changing for the better. Yet, there’s still much work to be done.

From my experience and through conversations with countless accomplished female leaders in the world of PR, I’ve come to realize that the key to improving these odds lies with all senior leadership —both male and female—to ensure women are not left behind.

As leaders, both male and female, we must demonstrate conscious inclusion as a business priority. The single most powerful thing a PR agency or firm can do to promote more women leaders is to help build the desire and encourage employees to make decisions.

I truly believe there’s never been a better time for women to climb into leadership positions in PR, because both on the client and agency side, there’s an obligation that we must do better to ensure gender equality. This gives everyone equal advantages and access, levels the playing field, strengthens an agency’s culture and, most importantly, provides equal opportunities for all.

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Art Stevens is Managing Partner of The Stevens Group, comprised of consultants to the PR agency profession and focusing on mergers, acquisitions and management consulting.

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