Why Are There So Many Women in Public Relations?

It turns out, they did.

One reason journalists disparage PR people is that we don’t really understand what they do, having mainly interacted with them by rejecting their pitches, pumping them for information, or by grabbing a name tag from them at conferences. We don’t see the effort that goes into winning “new business,” or in mollifying a client with marathon conference calls, or in arranging the seating for an event such that dignitaries from two at-war countries don’t accidentally bump elbows over panna cotta.

“I think a lot of younger women go into PR because they think they’re going to be the glamorous Samantha Jones from Sex and the City where you’re opening up restaurants and promoting hot new clubs,” said Shannon Stubo, vice president of corporate communications at LinkedIn.

(I’ll pause here just to note that nearly every woman I spoke with mentioned Samantha Jones. It’s as though that show subtly influenced public opinion in a way we didn’t even notice.)

“Running a communications team at a global public company is extremely different and decidedly unglamorous,” she continued. “You’re playing a very critical role in the company, and you have a lot of influence and responsibility. These are people who are actually helping drive the business, not writing press releases and ‘smiling-and-dialing.”

The smile-and-dial might be the number one reason journalists grouse about PR people so much. “Do you have a minute? I’m just following up on an email I sent you a minute ago.”  We only have so many minutes!

“When I first started in PR, there were a couple editors and it was part of your initiation that you had to call and pitch them because they were so mean,” Sol said. “Let's just say they were influential in the tech world. That got a little bit to their head.”

U.S. Public Health Service/Flickr

Being an egocentric journalist, my theory was always that many women found themselves in PR because it’s so hard to break into journalism. I figured that after considering becoming reporters, they thought to themselves, “Why go into a field everyone says is ‘dying’ when you can make money and have a nice life in PR?”

And indeed, some did find themselves in the field seemingly without much effort. Sacchetti, from Secret, admits that she picked PR over a consulting job because she thought it would be easy. Latour, from GE, says she really hated her first, entry-level job at a law firm, so she visited a headhunter, who suggested PR.

“I said, ‘what’s PR?’” she recalled.

Others thought about journalism but were daunted by how unstable and low-paying it seemed.

“My mom always wanted me to go into journalism,” said Ellie Rutledge, who worked in PR at a big agency before recently taking a social-media role at an advocacy association. “She thought I had what it takes because I am always excited to learn and I question everything. But that’s not the aspect of journalism I see anymore. There’s not a lot of room to pick your stories based on what’s important to learn about; it’s about what gets the most readership, and most often that isn’t newsy.”

Cait Douglas, director of communications for the U.S. Travel Association, worked for the college paper at American University before concluding that the early stages of journalism were far more grueling than those of PR.

“You might have to go to a small town to create your career,” she said. “With PR, there's a lot of opportunities no matter where you are.”

At the same time, many of the women had their own misconceptions about journalism. A big one was that reporters are all deadline-obsessed copy slaves.

“I always felt like journalism was so competitive, and I didn’t like the idea of being forced to write on a timeline,” Rutledge said. “Writing is the part of my job I always procrastinate on!”

(I'm still waiting for the day that journalists stop procrastinating and my Twitter feed falls silent.)

“If you're a news-focused journalist, it's a much harder job,” Sacchetti said. “You have to be on all the time and you never get a weekend.”

Journalists do work long days, but it’s not exactly investment-banker hours. And given the nature of our work, if that were true you’d see a lot more think pieces about the miserable reporterly life.

And PR can be intense in its own right: Stubo said her day starts at 5:15 a.m. and ends late in the evening. “There is a break in professional work when I am with my children (ages 2 and 4) between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.,” she said, “And then I’m back on the phone or email until 10:00 p.m. I have between 12 and 14 meetings each day, and I am a member of our company’s Executive Team. I am up to speed on nearly every important issue at the company and am called upon multiple times per day for guidance.”

Others never considered journalism, having set their sights on PR early. Chantelle Karl, a PR consultant who formerly worked for Yelp and others, worked her way up from an internship with Marianna Marino, an independent PR practitioner in the Bay Area, during her junior year of college. Because the internship was unpaid, she worked long days with Marino and spent nights folding clothes at Banana Republic. This sounds not dissimilar to my first unpaid internship in journalism, which I completed while working 25 hours a week at a stationary store and living in a one-bedroom apartment with three other people.

***

It seems like, at least in more recent years, college students are preparing for communications careers purposefully. In an analysis of the American Community Survey, Philip N. Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland College Park, found that 47 percent of women and 35 percent of men who are public relations specialists or managers majored in communications, journalism, English, advertising/PR, business, and mass media—all majors that would lead naturally to a PR career. Communications was the most popular major for both genders, at roughly 10 percent for men and 15 for women, and journalism was a distant second (or third, in the case of men.)

“It looks like women are more likely than men to prepare for [a PR] career in college,” Cohen said.


Percent Female Among College Majors, 1971-2011

Philip Cohen

Meanwhile, women decidedly do not major in fields that could lead to other types of high-paying jobs, like in engineering or computer science. Another analysis by Cohen found that while women are majoring in formerly male-dominated fields like psychology and biology in greater numbers, the share of female computer-science majors has actually declined since the mid-1980s. The share of men in traditionally female fields like education, English, and social work, however, has barely budged.

One study found that the difference in majors can be chalked up to the fact that women tend to value “non pecuniary,” or non-monetary aspects of their college majors slightly more than men do, while men value their potential future earnings slightly more.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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