Why Are There So Few Women in Senior Management?
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Why Are There So Few Women in Senior Management?

There’s not much question that women outnumber men at the entry level, and at almost every other level. On the other hand, men continue to hold almost all of the top PR agency jobs.

Paul Holmes

Ironically, the latest survey about public relations salaries and other human resources issues arrived in our mailbox the same day that Creamer Dickson Basford announced the departure of chairman, president and chief executive Jean Farinelli. It was ironic because the survey, published by PR Reporter, concludes that the field needs to attract more men in order to reflect society more accurately.     
 
It’s conventional wisdom that the public relations field is dominated by women, but the veracity of that statements depends a great deal on what one means by domination. There’s not much question that women outnumber men at the entry level, and at almost every other level. On the other hand, men continue to hold almost all of the top PR agency jobs.
 
With Farinelli’s departure, and her replacement by Daryl Salerno, men hold the top positions at each of the nation’s top-tier full-service PR firms. The only two firms where women are in senior level positions (chairman, president, CEO) are GCI/APCO (where Margery Kraus heads the APCO part of the business) and Ruder Finn (where Kathy Bloomgarden is president, running the agency with her father David Finn, her brother Peter, and her sister Amy Binder).
 
 Agency leaders will doubtless come up with perfectly logical reasons for this anomaly, but many of the arguments they put forward—women want to spend more time with their families than men, CEOs are less inclined to take women seriously as senior counselors—are contradicted by the fact that it’s only in the big agency world that women have difficulty breaking through to the top level.
 
 In the corporate world, a healthy percentage of the top professionals in the country are women. Marilyn Laurie at AT&T and Joyce Hergenhan at General Electric—probably two of the top five PR jobs in the country—proved that women can be taken seriously by senior management. Other senior corporate women include Mich Matthews of Microsoft, Elizabeth Krupnick of New York Life, Kathy Fitzgerald of Lucent Technologies.
 
Meanwhile, more than half of the country’s leading entrepreneurial agencies were founded by women, which ought to dispel the myth that women are not prepared to make a commitment to pulling long hours at the office. In the technology sector alone, firms like Waggener Edstrom, Cunningham Communications, Blanc & Otus, Fitzgerald Communications, and Alexander Communications were all started by women and have gone on to be among the most successful firms of the past decade. Outside the technology arena, leading independent firms are headed by Lynn Morgen, Patrica Tanaka, Annemarie Cairns, Madeline de Vries, Marina Maher, Carol Cone.
 
Several of those women say privately that they would never have been given the opportunity to take on the same kind of responsibility in a large agency environment. So do several women who have left the agency world for the corporate arena. Says one, “I always felt it was clear that at the agency where I worked, if you were a woman you could go so far and no further. I found a level of respect on the corporate side I never found in the agency business.”
 
Cynics suggest that women find it easier to rise to the top in the corporate world because large corporations need diversity at the senior level, and it’s easier to fill the PR position with a “token woman” than to find a qualified female candidate for the CFO or senior legal officer role. But at least corporations have programs in place that make diversity an issue and that encourage the advancement of women.
 
“I have had a lot of women from other agencies talk to me over the years and tell me they know they will never get to the highest level at the agencies they are at,” says APCO’s Kraus. “Women at these firms reach a certain point and they get very frustrated. The fact is that a lot of the men running large PR agencies don’t have a lot of sensitivity to this issue and they have not made it a priority to see women make it past a certain level.”
 
Agencies continue to come up with excuses and rationalizations for their failure to advance women to senior roles. One, still voiced by male executives at one top ten firm, is that clients—particularly CEOs—prefer to be counseled by men.
 
“People use clients as an excuse,” says Dorothy Crenshaw, who held senior positions at several top agencies before launching her own firm, Stanton Crenshaw Communications, two years ago. “They say, ‘I don’t have a problem with it, but my clients might.’ There’s a perception that outside the consumer arena women may not be taken seriously.”
 
That perception should have been laid to rest by the success of counselors such as Joele Frank of Abernathy MacGregor Frank, one of the most respected M&A practitioners in the country, or Sheila Tate of Powell Tate, who has made a very nice living out of working on some of the most important issues in the public policy arena world, or by a handful of executives in the technology sector.
 
“If you look at the technology world, at firms like Alexander and Blanc & Otus and Cunningham, you see women are making it in what has always been thought of as a male dominated business,” says Ruder-Finn’s Binder. “In most of those firms, women are sitting down with the CEOs of their client companies and offering counsel and being taken seriously. It’s not that CEOs are not willing to listen. At our firm, both Kathy and I have counseling relationships with our clients and our gender is not an issue.”
 
Like several of the women we interviewed for this article, Binder drew a sharp distinction between the public relations agency business and top tier ad firms, pointing to such high-powered advertising women as Shelley Lazarus at Ogilvy & Mather and Linda Srere of Young & Rubicam. “It seems women have more success in the advertising business,” she says.
 
It is also suggested that women may simply not be aggressive enough to take the helm of a large agency.
 
“I think there are perceived differences in terms of toughness,” says Cone. “I participated in competitive sports for a long time, and I learned what it’s like to get knocked down and get right back up again. That gives men a toughness that certain women may not have, and which they need to have to rise up through the ranks.”
 
No one denies that there are differences between men and women in terms of management and leadership styles, although any discussion of those differences involves a degree of generalization.
 
“Women may be more conservative in terms of stepping forward and asking more responsibility,” says Kraus. “Men find it very easy to step forward and tell you they can do something, even if it’s something they have never done before. Women are more likely to tell you the reasons they might not be qualified for a task, to let you know that they’ve never done something before. I don’t think it translates into any difference in terms of performance, but it means that women may appear less eager to take on new challenges.”
 
Even among those who agree that there are differences in management approach, however, there is no one who suggests that the way women manage is inferior. What it comes down to, in the words of one of the women we interviewed, is that “men are more comfortable with other men. They think they know what other men are thinking, and how they will act. They’re confused by women.”
 
The final suggestion is that women are more likely to abandon public relations for either a second career or to spend more time at home, raising a family. There’s not much doubt that this is, and always will be, a factor. There’s also not much doubt that there are certain things agencies could do to help women meet their needs without giving up their careers.
 
“There’s no question that you have to make a tremendous commitment of time and energy to make it in this business,” says Carol Cone. “Trying to live up to that commitment while trying to raise a family is very difficult. We have to face the fact that women are still the primary nurturers in most families, and that is not going to change any time soon.”
 
One of the advantages of being an entrepreneur, she says, is not that people who run their own businesses work fewer hours—the opposite is probably true—but rather that being your own boss allows you to set your own schedule. Given what entrepreneurs like Cone have achieved, one has to ask why larger agencies don’t give their senior people the same freedom.
 
“It’s something we are starting to look at,” says Chris Komisarjevsky, recently appointed president of Burson-Marsteller, the world’s largest public relations firm. B-M has two women on its senior management team: Diane Perlmutter, who heads human resources, and Barbara Smith, worldwide creative director. “Women do seem to leave the business at a higher rate than men and we need to learn more about what happens during people’s careers that prompts them to make a change.”
 
Komisarjevsky said that some of the policies recently introduced at B-M and elsewhere, designed to provide more flexible work options, including telecommuting and flextime, may be more attractive to women. “Anecdotally, we are hearing that women are much more likely to take advantage of those family friendly programs,” he says.
 
Of course, it will incumbent upon male managers—many of whom have difficulty understanding the new demand for programs that balance work and life—to see that women who take advantage of these new programs are not penalized, or perceived within the organization as somehow less committed to their jobs.
 
Says Crenshaw, “This may be one of those cases where we have been so busy helping out clients deal with these issues that we haven’t spent enough time looking at our own businesses. We haven’t formalized programs to advance women the way that some of our clients have. It’s time to take a look at our own house.”
 
At a time when personnel recruitment and retention is the most vital issue facing the agency business, the heads of the major agencies need to make that a long hard look.
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