Gender imbalance: why is the female-dominated PR industry still led by men?

6 years, 7 months ago


Although women account for a significant majority of PR practitioners in many countries, men still occupy the lion’s share of top jobs. By Elina Melgin.

The PR industry has become more and more dominated by women in the last two decades both in the United States and in Europe. This trend has brought about certain side-effects which have been the object of academic research, but the trend has not been studied properly as a cultural phenomenon. Why does the field not attract men even though the nature and scope of the job has changed and quantifying results has improved? On the other hand, why does the Director of Communications still tend to be a man even in the egalitarian Nordic countries?
According to a study into the membership structure of all central PR unions conducted in Finland in autumn 2013, up to 89.2% of the operators in the industry are women. In the light of these results, Finland has the most female-dominated PR field of all Nordic countries. In Sweden, the share of women members in their union is around 80%. According to Jeanette Agnrud, the Director of Communications in the Swedish Association of Communication Professionals, men do not often want to be involved in professional associations or respond to surveys in the way that women do, so the actual figure could be smaller. 
The difference is still significant and reflects the nature of academic careers in these countries as a whole. Women tend to hold a university degree more often than men. In 2013, a total of 792 people, of which 612 were women, applied to the University of Helsinki to study Media and Communication. In general, far more women than men apply and graduate from universities both in Finland and Sweden. 
Even in Germany, the field has slowly become more and more dominated by women. According to figures from 2009, there were still 10% more men than women in PR-related jobs in Germany. In the United States, however, the domination of the field by women is a significant phenomenon. In 2011, the share of women in the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) was 71%. 
Are the male networks getting in the way of women´s leadership?
Despite the field becoming predominantly female, the leadership positions still tend to go to men, even in the exemplary egalitarian countries. Since the 1980s, researchers (such as L.A. Grunig, J. Grunig, T. Hunt) have studied how women are sidelined in leadership selection processes. According to a German study (Bentele-Grosskurth-Senderlanz, 2009), the main reasons for the glass ceiling phenomenon are family planning and the strong networks among men. Another object of research has been the gender pay gap. According to salary data gathered by PR Week, women earned on average 72% of what men earned in similar jobs in 2002 (Wrigley 2002, Journal of Public Relations Research 14). 
However, there are some differences in Finland. The female domination of the industry started early. Even as early as in 1983, a total of 58 % of the respondents in a joint survey conducted by all Finnish PR associations were women.  There is barely any gender pay gap in leadership positions in the PR field in Finland. The tax data from last year showed that women in leadership positions in marketing communications actually earn more than men (Markkinointi&Mainonta magazine, 9 November 2012). According to the 2011 statistics, women in specialist positions in the private sector earned more than men whereas men in leadership positions earned more than women. The figures also reveal that a woman in a managerial position earned EUR 4458 (private sector median) per month and a man EUR 4795. In director’s positions, men earned EUR 500 a month more than women. There are hardly any differences in median salaries in the public sector.
The common question seems to be: why are men not interested in communications? Academic studies do not seem to provide any answers to this question. President William Murray of PRSA says that in the US the subject is controversial. "There is speculation (just speculation) as to why the field has become female dominated, but no real answers.  As many note, there is little academic research on this subject. One school of thought is that there seems generally to be a shortage of women taking math and engineering courses.  That same reason may be motivating women to pursue educational tracks in Communications rather than Marketing, which is perceived as being more quantitative".
Media revolution changing the job
Men have also drifted into the more quantitative fields of sales and marketing in Finland. The indicators in the PR field have improved but has the improvement been significant enough after all? Is the job still viewed through immaterial values that are difficult to measure? Or do the real reasons lie elsewhere? Is the industry not recognised sufficiently or not well-paid enough for men? 
One interesting element is the way the nature and scope of the communications job has altered. Even in my two decades in the field, a lot has changed. Now you need to have a strategic and economic mind, you need to cope with new technical channels of social media and be on standby 24 hours a day. At the same time, you should be all the things you were before: precise, have good language skills, efficient, ready to serve and, first and foremost, ready to be flexible. You would think that the big challenges brought about by the great changes in the media industry also attract men. Is this true?
"We have a separate student division, with over 300 student-only chapters across America. If anything, the demographics of that group seems to be even more female – I sometimes speak to student chapters that are 100% female. The most recent survey we took of this population was based upon a small sample, only 210 out of a population of 10,000, but of those respondents 88% indicated that they were female", Murray says. Even in Finland, there is little sign of the changed content of the job attracting more men into the PR industry. On the contrary, figures indicating female dominance are now higher than two years ago.
We can also ask why it is that men are not appointed as PR specialists or to PR jobs in middle management. The person appointed to these positions is usually a woman with a university degree. Statistics show, however, that men become directors of communication more often than women. According to this year’s figures, men hold 20% of the director’s positions in communications but only 12% of the manager level positions.  Especially after the dramatic changes faced by the media industry, this position has, in recent years, surprisingly been given to a male journalist entering the industry. 
In Finland, women do apply for leadership positions. This shows that planning a family is not as significant a factor as it is, for example, in Germany. In Finland, women have always had a role at the workplace, and the housewife culture has never gained ground. Women are used to coping with both family and work as demonstrated by many Finnish female ministers. Perhaps the question of why a female PR professional with a degree loses the race for a director of communications position in the final stages should be addressed to managing directors who are often men.
The PR industry should lead the way in promoting equality
We can see a phenomenon, harmless in itself, appearing in Finland as a reaction to female dominance in the industry. Last year, men working in the industry founded a club exclusive to men. Even the name of the club carries echoes from the past. Tiedotusmiehet (Information Men 2.0.) is a male-only network that gathers around lectures, games and parties. Women´s reactions have been everything from amused and baffled to angry. Attempts to concentrate power through exclusive networks does not sound like something from the 21st century. Are men this unsure about their position? Or is this a reflection of a trend that no civilised society should really need? After all, people should be free to define their own gender identity.
It is apparent that a female-dominated industry in Finland has to consider the implications of its existing female domination.  When a highly educated and experienced female PR professional is sidelined in favour of a less qualified man, it is evident that equality and justice are not served in an acceptable way. Instead of playing victims, we must take a look in the mirror. There is power in the masses, and seizing this power requires cooperation and shared objectives. 
It is about time we all start building and supporting professional networks that eradicate the male vs. female polarisation in the industry. The PR industry is known for promoting noble causes, such as sustainable development and environmental values, and this list should really include gender equality as well. All the actors in the industry should roll up their sleeves and start working together across all nationality or gender barriers.
Thought Leader Profile
Elina Melgin is Managing Director (CEO) for ProCom – Association of Communication Professionals in Finland, a community of more than 2400 members ( She has a 25-year career in communication and journalism including employers like Nokia and University of Art and Design (currently Aalto University). Ms Melgin is a PhD Candidate at the University of Helsinki. Her research area covers the history of public diplomacy in Finland. She has written and (co-)edited several awarded annual reports, magazines and books including History of Public Relations in Finland, 2012. Ms Melgin was a member of the board of Global Alliance for PR and Communications Management ( during 2012-2013. 

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The Author

Elina Melgin

Elina Melgin is Managing Director (CEO) for ProCom – Association of Communication Professionals in Finland, a community of more than 2400 members.

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