In an industry where we still hear the term 'PR girls' casually thrown about, there's a long way to go in ensuring women get their due credit at the top of the food chain. At entry levels, female to male hires are roughly three to one but, oddly, in leadership roles, that proportion is inverted.
"This makes no sense," says Bob Grove, Edelman's APAC COO. "Agencies are losing some of their best talent."
So why does this happen?
Addressing the phenomenon
Rebecca Wilson, EVP, Singapore & Australia, WE Communications, says: "Many working women who are also mothers hold dual roles as leaders and primary caregivers. [And they] face another professional barrier altogether: in both the minds of women who think they need to (or want to) take a sabbatical from their careers and men who consciously or subconsciously expect women will want to do this."
This sentiment is shared with Kiri Sinclair, founder and CEO of Sinclair. "Planning a family without losing their place on the career ladder comes top of the list. Women want to know how they can take time out from the office and come back alongside their colleagues without missing a step."
WE Comms' Wilson adds that there's also an absence of understanding that diversity in leadership is a win for everyone.
"We've started from behind, historically with the inequity of leadership gender resulting in the industry lacking strong role models to influence and inspire the next generation. We're still working toward equity, but inequality is systemic, and impacts all our organisations and communities and structures. And while we've seen progress, we still have a long way to go," she says.
Another reason cited is a lack of confidence among women.
"Self-belief can be a major inhibitor; where we limit our own options by waiting for opportunities or follow a course of expectation. I strongly believe in putting yourself forward, creating an opportunity, owning something unexpected, or creating something new," says Wilson.
Jane Morgan, managing director at Golin Hong Kong, agrees: "In my experience, women suffer more so than men from confidence issues. I don't think there's one specific reason as it depends on the organisation. Throughout my career I've witnessed various situations—women struggling to deal with the pressures and expectations of a high-powered role and raising a family, women pushing other women down, boys' clubs at the top; I think there's a lot still to address," she says.
"Organisations should encourage and support women to go for the top role, but that depends on savvy leaders who can see the value an individual can bring to the company, over and beyond those who shout the loudest or with whom they have personal relationships with."
Making progressive strides
Edelman's Grove says we need to—first and foremost—redefine what is meant by great leadership and performance.
"Corporate accomplishment has been traditionally defined by men. While the achievement of female leaders working within these confines should be applauded, we need to move beyond male stereotype definitions of 'corporate' success," he says.
"I am encouraged that there is increasing emphasis on the appreciation of different management personas such as listening and inclusivity as key attributes of leadership. There is solid evidence that these attributes boost the performance of teams."
And because we live in a world where women are still expected to be primary caregivers in a household, flexibility in the workplace is key.
"This is not new news, but it used to be easy to separate work and leisure or home time," Grove says. "With today's mobile, multi-screen workforce, the workplace needs to be fluid. We've tried a lot of different iterations at Edelman but pretty much every experiment has resulted in improved well-being and team performance," he adds.
"That said, there is immense value in also having in-person social interaction and work collaboration, so it needs to be a comfortable balance between the two with clear guidelines on when people should switch off entirely."
It's also important for organisations to value new mothers no differently to other women or men in the workplace. Often, women who take maternity time off lose confidence when it comes to keeping up with new developments or tech in the office; or they might feel that their male counterparts have progressed further in the workplace while they've been away.
Golin's Morgan, who has 18-month-old twins, says it's tough in this climate. "What has helped is my company's view on its people; not just women. We encourage flexible working, we're dedicated to health and wellness and honestly, the leadership team at HQ are quite simply really decent and understanding human beings," she says.
"It's also about support systems. When I was hired at Golin at the age of 35, I worked very differently to how I work now. I am almost 40 and have two children; my support needs have changed and the environment I need to succeed has changed. What hasn't changed is the value I bring to the company and that's because the company has allowed me to be flexible and operate how I need to, to be the best I can be in my role."
We also need to move away from the damaging mindset that hiring women with young children is a "loss" as they may be distracted.
"Personally, having worked with many women who have taken short or long periods of time off to have children, I know that they come back with more skills and a new view of the world—and these are huge assets to our agency. Their life experiences contribute to our team's cultural world view and understanding of people—and this is key to what we do as PR pros," says Sinclair.
Meanwhile, Wilson points out that women have to me more declarative of what they want. "There needs to be no doubt about their aspirations. And all of us need to do more to help those with less power and representation find their places at the table," she says.
"Plus, balance is a big one. I've moved away from using the phrase 'work-life balance' in any context, because the reality is that balance is an unattainable and subjective goal. I refer to 'work-life effectiveness' and focus on finding ways to be purposeful and present in everything whether it be my role as a client advisor, business leader, mother, or friend."
Where are all the men?
In the quest for more women at the top, where are the men in the fight? Whether it's attending events about diversity or initiating inclusivity programmes in the workplace, it seems that the responsibility largely falls on women's shoulders.
"Men play an important part in making sure credit is equally distributed. I also point to the power of allyship when I say men play a big role in building equity because they offer another set of voices in helping to normalise the idea of women in positions of power," says Wilson.
"There is an underlying irony when hundreds of women attend events that are focused on empowering women and I feel a little uncomfortable that there is an unintended hypocrisy in our quest for equality."
Morgan too says that men need to do more of the heavy-lifting and take ownership of some of the issues. "I was at a conference last year and a male speaker, while talking about female equality in the workplace, actually said that women need to explain to men what it is they need and how men should behave, if they want change. And I thought 'Ah, so it's our fault then?!' I think in all honesty he was trying to be a champion but it felt condescending," she says.
"Rather than wave the flag for women with words, actions need to be seen. And those actions don't have to be big initiatives, they have to be seen in the day-to-day business environment and embedded in the organisational culture."
Sinclair makes a similar point by saying that this issue is not simply a women's issue—it's a universal one. "Men who have taken the time to truly understand the issues and perspectives of their female colleagues can help lead the change. For true change to occur, advocacy needs to come from all levels and all people," she says.
Edelman's Grove is a rare male leader in the industry who regularly speaks at conferences and events around diversity and inclusion. Through internal policies and flexible working, 48% of leadership at Edelman is made up of women, a laudable feat at a large network.
"Some years ago, it was quite unusual for a man to be actively championing gender equality at work. Men didn't perceive it as relevant and a lot of women didn't know how to react to a man who offered to get involved. Things have moved on," he says.
"Many men agree with gender equality in principle but in reality, are only passive supporters. Very simply, if we as businesses are looking to create an environment that actively supports gender equality, then we must start by making it relevant to all."
He continues, "if initiatives are primarily focused on women supporting an equal workplace, they won't change the way organisations behave every day. To make real change, we need the majority of a company's people to commit to make a dramatic difference."
If you're interested in new ideas and strategies to promote diversity and inclusion, we will be hosting Campaign Leading Change 2020 Conference & Awards (formerly Women Leading Change) on May 28 at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.