PR and corporate affairs a "pink ghetto"

By Paul McIntyre | 5 March 2012

It's controversial and will no doubt smack of double standards by male-dominated management in major corporates but a new report just out has highlighted a two-decade challenge of women dominating corporate affairs and the PR sector.

The Trends and Issues in Australian Corporate Affairs report from communications search and recruitment firm Salt & Shein, has again highlighted the delicate issue of a female-dominated industry in PR and corporate affairs.

The report suggests concern is growing about the credibility of the function in the eyes of senior company management because it is too heavily skewed to women.

“Women now dominate the industry both across agency and in-house communication roles, filling more than three-quarters of specialised roles from media relations and stakeholder management to issues and crisis management, community relations and internal communication,” the report argues.

In 2010, women made up 73% of Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) members.

The big unknown is what Salt & Shein describe as the “rapid feminisation” of corporate affairs and public relations and why men are not being attracted to the roles.

“Senior practitioners, both male and female, are seriously questioning whether gender imbalance in corporate affairs is a healthy trend for the profession. For some it has become the elephant in the room,” the report argues.

“Some went as far as to say that a highly feminised corporate affairs function could be viewed negatively as a ‘ghetto’ by senior management who, ironically, are dominated by men. Overwhelmingly, a balanced mix of gender across the function is seen as ideal.”

But attracting men is the problem. Salt & Shein quote an unnamed female corporate affairs and investor relations director of a top 50 listed company: “I actually do think it is an issue. I don’t believe gender imbalance is good for any profession. I really worry that it makes us appear to be a bit of a ‘pink ghetto’, so that we’re perhaps taken less seriously by management. In an ideal world the corporate affairs team should be a group that is debating and tossing around ideas, and to achieve that you need different perspectives. So whether it’s dominated by men or women, an imbalance is not healthy for the function.”

Another unnamed senior executive at a financial services group made some interesting points in the report: “I see it in my own media team,” he says. “All the media positions are now being filled by young women on the way through because blokes aren’t competing for whatever reason. Government relations is balanced [along gender lines], and internal comms is more women than men. It’s a real battle to get the balance right.”

Salt & Shein partner, Josh Shein, acknowledges the issues are not new but the ongoing feminisation of the sector means more attention is being paid to the issue. “There has been a concern that if corporate affairs teams are made-up only of women that they may not be taken as seriously by the executive team as of there were some mature blokes in there as well,” he says.

“Girls and gay blokes gravitate to PR. It’s always been that way. I suspect it’s because PR and corporate affairs is seen as a softer skillset in terms of judgment. It’s more creative. And the softer skills set is more about influencing as opposed to say, the sales function.”

Shein says there is no easy fix – in fact “everyone is scratching their heads wondering what the solution is,” he says. “It just comes down to the classic problems of sexism in the workforce. Women often need to take maternity leave and that damages their credibility of being an executive. It’s seen as putting their careers as second.”

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