Why Aren't There More Female CEOs In PR?
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
COO & Senior Editor

Why Aren't There More Female CEOs In PR?

While women make up about 70% of the PR workforce, they only hold about 30% of the top positions in the industry.

Aarti Shah

Why Aren't There More Female CEOs In PR?

Despite the high-profile gains for women in management positions across the PR industry, only 30% of global firms are run by women, according to last year's World PR Report, the definitive global study of PR industry size and trends.

Among the 250 firms on the list — which spans agencies as big as $750m in fee income to those as small as $3m — 75 have at least one woman in its top post. This number, however, dwindles further when looking only at firms with revenue of more than $100m.

The Numbers

Among the 20 firms with revenues of $100m or more, 25% are run by women. The biggest of these is the UK-based Brunswick, ranked at #9 last year with $210m in revenue. Group CEO Susan Gilchrist has been at the helm of the organization — which notably specializes in the traditionally male expertise areas of crisis and financial communications — since 2012. Brunswick is the only firm in the top 10 that is led by a woman.

Like Brunswick, all of the female-led agencies in the top 20 are done so from the US. France's Havas (ranked #10) has Marian Salzman at the top, while Cohn & Wolfe (ranked #14) is headed by global CEO Donna Imperato.

Rounding out the top 20 are APCO Worldwide (founder Margery Kraus recently transitioned to an executive chairman role, making Brad Staples the CEO); Porter Novelli (Karen van Bergen); and Waggener Edstrom, which remains led by co-founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin.

It is worth noting that of the six female-led firms in the top 20, two are led by women that founded the organization. Another notable pattern is that agencies rarely seem to pluck CEOs from the traditionally female-heavy consumer practice. Instead, there seems to be a preference for corporate, public affairs or even healthcare practice leads.

This could be related to the frequent — and early — exposure the corporate practice gives PR professionals to CEOs. Often, this trains PR professionals to be comfortable interacting with top-level executives early in their career — an attribute that's highly valued as agencies make promotions.

Among the 39 firms between $99m and $40m, nine are run by women (23%) with one based in Brazil and the remaining in the US and the UK. And while the 210 firms below the $40m mark have a higher ratio of women leading the organization, the percentage still sits well below the 50% range. Of firms with less than $40m in fee income, about 30% are run by at least one woman.

Methodology: The leadership team for each agency was defined by those executives put forth on the agency's website as its leadership.

The Bigger Picture

It’s worth considering these figures in light of recent research into the unique challenges that women in leadership positions face compared to their male counterparts. Last year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg highlighted some of these in her bestseller Lean In, which explored why — 30 years after women became 50% of US college graduates — men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions.

This gap feels more acute in the PR industry because, by most estimates, women make up about 70% of the overall workforce, yet occupy only 30% of the top jobs. In fact, more than 70% of respondents to the Holmes Report’s Best Agencies to Work For survey were women in 2014, further reinforcing that, at the lower levels, women make up more than two-thirds of the industry.

Research shows that sexism is still an issue for women either in or aspiring to leadership positions. A 2012 study from Yale University found that volubility — the total amount of time spent talking — has a positive effect for men but not for women. For instance, when a man speaks up he is considered to be more powerful, but women incur criticism for speaking more than others. "Lots of research shows more diverse leadership makes for a better bottom line” And while it’s true that as more women sit on leadership boards, it becomes more likely that a woman will ultimately ascend to the top job — the gender ratio at this level is still not representative. Among the industry’s top 10 agencies (excluding Brunswick, ranked #9, because of its unique leadership structure) –  women, on average, make up 29% of leadership teams. The leader of this pack is Weber Shandwick (ranked #2) with women making up 65% of its 20-person leadership team.

“There is improvement when you see women at the management level,” says Weber Shandwick president Gail Heimann, who is one of 13 women on the firm’s leadership team. “There are more and more women rising to the level of management and I have to believe that will result in more compelling change.”

Meanwhile at Edelman (ranked #1), president of strategic partnerships and alliances Gail Becker — one of three women on the firm’s 13-person executive committee — founded the agency’s Global Women’s Executive Network (GWEN) three years ago with a goal to increase the number of women in leadership positions within the firm by 50% in five years.

“Lots of research shows more diverse leadership means for a better bottom line and we make this a priority because it’s good for business,” Becker explains. “Agencies have to first acknowledge they can do better and then come up with a real plan to do so.”

This might include, of course, policies considered crucial to attracting and retaining women such as flexible work environments, telecommuting and family leave. When Lean In came out, Sandberg herself was a target of criticism, in part, because of the view that she was relatively easy on corporations and instead shifted the burden of change on women themselves.

Do Corporate Policies Need To Be Changed?

In the US, maternity and paternity leave policies often vary dramatically from one agency to another. Moreover, while many agencies have flexible working policies, in some situations it’s implied that to be promoted facetime matters — which often compels women to seek more creative solutions that sometimes mean taking an entrepreneurial route.

For instance, Eastwick Communications co-founder/CEO Barbara Bates joined the now defunct Benjamin Group in 1988, in part, because she and the firm’s founder arranged an in-office nanny share because both women had young children at the time.

“Women are creating their own opportunities,” said Bates who started her own firm in 1991 that today takes in about $10 million in revenue. "Men make assumptions about women's careers" This raises the question, are big agencies losing talented women — some of whom start firms that ultimately become competition because of rigid policies?

“Women still self-select out of top management roles,” Heimann points out. “We need to groom them to succeed and instill self-confidence. Women tend to be nose-to-the-grindstone and men tend to do a better job of promoting themselves.”

While interviewing senior executives for this story, many said women are opting out of top management roles — but there is research that paints a murkier picture. A recent study by Bain & Company found that 43% of women aspire to top management within the first two years of their position, compared with 34% of men.

“Both genders are equally confident about their ability to reach a top management position at that stage,” reads a blog post on the research. “This suggests that women are entering the workforce with the wind in their sails, feeling highly qualified after success at the university level.”

However, among those employees with more than two years experience, 34% of men are still aiming for the top, while only 16% of women are. Recent high-profile examples of gender discrimination lawsuits have highlighted the challenges women sometimes face when climbing corporate ladders. Among them, Ellen Pao’s suit against her former employer venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and, more even more recently, a female software engineer has brought forth a suit against Twitter alleging a failure to promote women. "Women tend to be nose-to-the-grindstone and men tend to do a better job of promoting themselves" Research also indicates that men with stay-at-home wives tend to hold negative views of working women. Ketchum's North America CEO Barri Rafferty says bringing attention to various forms of bias can help managers be cognizant about how these might subconsciously impact personnel decisions.

“Men make assumptions about women's careers,“ Rafferty says. “You can't bring these pre-dispositions to the workplace. Ask women what they want. Also, you have to be open to different leadership styles — women's leadership can look different.“

Among these, women have a tendency to focus on building effective relationships as leaders. Meanwhile, men tend put their energy into demonstrating results of their work, according to a study that came out last year.

“We have to roll with the male way of doing things sometimes,“ Rafferty says. “I often tell women to look at the length of their emails compared to those of senior men. They are wasting a ton of time writing these long emails.“

Avoiding the 'Handmaiden’s Syndrome'

Having women in management positions that don’t ultimately lead to the corner office could create what Deborah Saw, managing partner at the UK-based Newgate (#106), calls “the Handmaiden’s Syndrome” after the Margaret Atwood dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

“We have so many women who are great at running accounts so management is reluctant to move them out of those roles,” says Saw. “Then you have senior men who run entire teams with women as support. These women hope their worth will be recognized without having to put their hand up.”

Research tends to support theories that women don’t call as much attention to their own achievements. In fact, not only are women more likely to abandon these efforts because of negative feelings about self-promotion, they are more likely to encounter backlash for advocating for themselves.

At a certain point, as the number of women starts to dwindle — typically several rungs below the CEO — it suddenly becomes more difficult for women to keep on climbing.

The Impact of Gendered Behavior 

Gendered workplace behaviors have become part of the mainstream conversation with term like “manterrupting” (women being interrupted or having their ideas shot down or taken by men) making their way into the lexicon.

“Women tend to open an idea with an apology,” Heimann observes. “The best way to get over this is to start rewarding a different set of behavior — one success begets the next. As leaders in the industry, we have to shepherd it.”

More passive workplace behaviors might feed into women opting out of top jobs, in part, because they are less likely to seek accommodations that make those positions more appealing.

“Any good company will look at a job and say ‘if I think someone is the right person for that job, let me make the job fit that person not the other way around,’” says Tim Dyson, CEO of the UK-based holding company Next 15, whose top three largest firms (Text100, OutCast and M Booth) are run by women. “Rather than saying ‘you have to travel X amount of time,’ you have to trust people to run a business in a way that they know is right. It is easy to make top jobs into ones that women would want — or not.”

As part of the Lean In organization, Sandberg has also raised the issue of women taking on “office housework” like taking notes and planning meetings — tasks that don’t usually pay off neither financially nor with the corner office.  

“The person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point,” Sandberg and co-author Adam Grant wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed from December. “When men do help, they are more likely to do so in public, while women help more behind the scenes.”

Weber’s Heimann counters this: unlike other sectors, in public relations the so-called “housework” can be the “lifeblood of an organization. In PR, you do get credit for this because it’s the bedrock of the organization,” she says.

Similarly, Havas CEO Marian Salzman credits “being a great notetaker” as the catalyst early in her career that nabbed her invites to strategic meetings that ultimately led her to the agency’s top post.

“It bothers me when we apologize for playing to our strengths,” Salzman says.

Women Hit The Glass Ceiling Long Before The CEO Level

Another popular concept — mentoring — is being questioned as the right way to groom promising women for leadership roles, in part, because the term has come to mean a formal agreement rather than a reciprocal relationship that develops more naturally. At worst, women can rely too heavily on identifying a mentor within an organization.

“If you’re good, you’re going to outgrow your mentor and you have to realize that you’re going to need different people at different times,” says Salzman. “You should be helpful to others and learn how to work collaboratively at all levels. But the idea that someone is going to take your career on as their task, I don’t see it.”

Rather than eschewing the idea of mentorship altogether, Edelman’s Becker calls for “sponsorship” which — rather than a one-on-one relationship instead encourages leadership to advocate on behalf of women at the highest management ranks. This, she adds, can be done by either gender.

“I’m a living, breathing product of being sponsored by men,” she adds. “There is so much emphasis put on recruiting women that people overlook promoting and recognizing the women within their own firm.”

Following an existing career path within an organization only takes one so far. At a certain point, as the number of women starts to dwindle —typically several rungs below the CEO — it suddenly becomes more difficult for women to keep on climbing, says one agency executive at a top five agency who asked not be named.

“Everyone talks about mentorship — but what does that really mean? You have to be in the room, making decisions,” she says. “But that inner circle starts to narrow around that second or third tier. That’s where there must be gender equity. Something is wrong if there are all-male meetings at that level.” “If you’re good, you’re going to outgrow your mentor and you have to realize that you’re going to need different people at different times” Next 15’s Dyson recognizes a similar pattern industry-wide.

“The glass ceiling doesn’t exist at the CEO level — it’s below that,” says Dyson. “There is an industry-wide issue of great talent not being recognized and that tends to happen around the VP-level. Women will notice it’s an all boys network at the top or there is a feeling they can’t control the work-life balance so often they will start their own agencies.”

This idea that more women in the PR industry were drawn to becoming entrepreneurs rather than scaling the often rocky terrain to become CEO of a top 10 PR firm was a theme that consistently surfaced in conversations for this story. Just this month, more research emerged to suggest that there isn’t as much lure for the big job among women.

Susan Butenhoff founded Access Communications in 1991, which she sold to Ketchum in 2008 where she is now a partner and head of global technology while still maintaining the CEO position at Access.

“To get a completely balanced representation of men and women, you have to assume that what drives women and men is the same — and that’s not the case,” Butenhoff says. “What women want is to create their own destiny and drive their own culture and we should be applauding how representative women are among entrepreneurs in this industry doing just that.”

Even so, the influence that a global CEO at a top 10 agency wields on the industry at large is significant. And for an industry where women dominate at the lower and mid levels, the leadership gap will continue to be glaring and worthy of exploring.

comments powered by Disqus