Yes SHE Can: Empowering Women in PR

— Anna Behr, WE 

You don’t have to be an expert on gender inequality to know it exists. From headlines around the infamous Google memo to coverage of the BBC salary equity debate, all you need to do is skim the newspaper to be reminded of gender disparity in the workplace. To arm ourselves with the tools to enact change, WE recently attended PR Council’s SHEQUALITY Workshop designed to spark conversations around how more women in PR can rise in the ranks. While WE is fortunate enough to call two female powerhouses our fearless founders, this is not the norm in business: women make up only 5 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, a stat that hasn’t wavered since the list was first published in 1955. With this as a starting point, WE talked through some real problems – backed by research – and brainstormed tangible ways to empower more female leaders.

Leaning into Authentic Leadership

The forum spotlighted research conducted by Global Strategy Group for The Rockefeller Foundation that pointed to gender inequality in the workplace as one of the biggest issues facing corporate America today. In fact, 1 in 4 Americans think it is more likely that humans will colonize on Mars than half of Fortune 500 CEOs will be women. Despite this sentiment, when asked to name desired leadership traits for the next generation of corporate leaders, most executives listed traits that are traditionally feminine: empathy, relationship-oriented, cooperative and having a collaborative mindset.

Moving Forward: Leading authentically is key. Whether a woman’s style is more traditionally “masculine” or “feminine,” we as colleagues need to respect and value her perspective. According to the research, the feminine perspective and leadership style is actually becoming more and more valued in the workplace due to the current political and social climate.


Making Sense of the Media

A key topic of discussion was the disparity in the way media represents male vs. female leaders. While the media almost always places an emphasis on a female CEO’s family in personal profiles, a male CEO’s family life is rarely mentioned. In fact, a whopping 78 percent of articles that discuss a female CEO’s personal life mention their family (compared to less than 1 percent of male CEO articles). Gender also determines whether and how the media places blame on the CEO when a company is struggling. The media study showed that female CEOs were 2.5x more likely to be blamed for a crisis. And because the media influences our own perceptions, 56 percent of Americans believe that female CEOs get more blame than male CEOs when they perform badly.

Moving Forward: As PR professionals, this disparity in the media is something we should be quick to spot and combat. As we look to council our clients on messaging or educate media about female spokespeople, let’s stop and ask ourselves key questions: Is this the way I’d position a male leader? Have I discussed with this spokesperson about whether she is comfortable being seen as a female leader vs. just a leader?

Conquering the Confidence Gap                                                                                                                    

The confidence gap says that, sometimes, women are their own worst enemies by undervaluing their own worth. In studies, men and women performing at the same level hold vastly different perceptions of their abilities: overwhelmingly, men overestimate their abilities and performance while women underestimate both. For instance, in an HP case study, women were found to apply for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men were happy to apply if they thought they met 60 percent.

Moving Forward: Men and women need to do better to speak the language of respect with one another. Mansplaining should not have a place in the office. Similarly, excessive “I’m sorry’s” and apologies when none are needed and overly harsh critiques from managers only work to reinforce the confidence gap. Senior leaders especially should acknowledge and praise achievements of junior staff to reinforce their credibility and worth. Women should feel they have a network of support in the workplace, building them up as opposed to tearing them down.

Above all, opening up the conversation and acknowledging gender inequality at play in the workplace is the pathway to change. By addressing the systemic issues and working towards a solution, we can help empower more women to lead fearlessly. As Margi Booth, founder of hosting PR agency M Booth, put it, “Go in, speak your mind and screw everybody else.”


Insights provided by Anna Behr & Mary Kate Fields