Why Are There So Many Women in Public Relations?

“No one ever encouraged me to do math or science, so I did liberal arts,” Latour said. “I didn't know what to do with a history major. I tried this, and it happened to be really right for me. I think it's a reflection of how women in society are educated. The idea that women are better at communicating or listening; I think that's old-fashioned.”

***

This is where the women-in-PR conversation gets uncomfortable and squirmy. The idea that women are somehow “naturally” more social, collaborative, or chipper, and that this leads them organically into a PR career, is a message that could use the palliative touch of a Don Draper or Peggy Olson. Or as a PR person might say, I have some exciting findings to share with you, direct from a sociological minefield.

There is some evidence that women tend to be more collaborative, participative, and pro-social than men are—but that’s impossible to untangle from our societal expectation that they be that way. Women have only been found to talk more than men when they’re in collaborative settings. Women are expected to be happier and to smile more than men. Subjects in clinical studies will more readily identify androgynous, angry-looking faces as male, but they will view androgynous happy faces as female. People will consider female leaders effective when they demonstrate both sensitivity and strength, but the male leaders need only to demonstrate strength. The only way to get study subjects to rate two fictional, identical executives named “Susan” and “James” similarly is if “Susan” hints that she makes efforts to “promote a positive community.”

Women may be drawn to PR because they feel they’re collaborative and social, but we’ve also socialized most of our women to be that way.

Regardless, this was repeatedly cited as one of PR’s biggest draws:

“Studies have shown that women tend to collaborate more and prefer to work on teams, whereas men usually do better in competitive environments and prefer to fly solo. That male approach works well for journalists, while having a bit of a 'people-pleaser' gene probably attracts and/or makes it easier for women to excel in the PR environment,” said Jennifer Hellickson, director of marketing at SweatGuru in Portland, Oregon.

Sol surmised that it’s because women are better at multitasking, which she says is also essential for PR.

“Having your hands in a lot of different pots is a big part of being in an agency,” she said. “That appeals to a woman's ability more so than men. Men tend to be more singularly focused.”

While studies have shown that the two halves of women’s brains are more interconnected, the idea that women are better at multitasking hasn’t been supported by research. In fact, many scientists doubt the idea that humans—male or female—are even capable of attending to two or more things at once.

Several of the women also seemed to enjoy working “behind the scenes,” while the average reporter enjoys clawing for bylines. Sol said being on camera was her “worst nightmare.” Stubo said her dream job was being Katie Couric’s publicist.

“It's interesting to see people who were journalists who made the flip to PR, and what a challenge that is to do that,” Sol said. It can come as a shock to be on the other side of the “publish” button.

The other big gender difference, for those deciding between PR and journalism, was that PR struck them as inherently less risky. Several studies have found that women in the job market tend to be more risk-averse than men because they are faced with steeper costs when they switch jobs: They have lower odds of being re-employed and they tend to spend more time in unemployment.

Men are also more risk-prone in other contexts (they’re more likely to cross busy roads, for example), but this, too, is largely a matter of socialization.

“Men love the chase; an explosion or car chase makes a very appealing story for a man,” said Jessica Chesney, a digital marketing coordinator at Command Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina. “So it could be the action and excitement that influences their decision to enter journalism.”

Hellickson earned a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism, and she had initially planned to move to New York after college to try to get her foot in the door of a major glossy.

“But that thought quickly faded when I learned more from classmates and colleagues about the high competition and low compensation,” Hellickson said. PR, she said, offered everything she loved—writing, storytelling, networking—all with the stability of the billable hour.

***

Despite their knack for spin, the women I spoke with weren’t blind to PR’s downsides. Several cited the fact that their schedules were unpredictable and clients seemed impossible to please.

“It's a bit of a thankless endeavor—when PR is good, everyone is off and planning for the next thing; but when PR is bad, it's all anyone can talk about,” Hellickson said.

Pitching journalists can fray even the most “communal” and “social” of nerves: “The reporter wouldn't want it, but you had to at least try,” Sacchetti said of past jobs. “You almost sometimes knew you were doing it to get the no. It was difficult. It wasn't fun.”

Others thought there might be sinister implications to the gender imbalance. “Are some of the few men in PR only seeking those positions to be around women all the time?” Chesney said. “It's so sad to say, but I heard a guy in PR say that's why he got into PR in college.”

Still, those who were dedicated to the field thought it allowed them to rise to the top in a way that other professions don’t. Sarah Rothe, a media manager at Golin in Chicago, said the industry’s female role models inspire her, noting that Golin had recently added two women to senior roles: a “Chief Creative and Community Officer” and a “Chief People Officer.”

“I think PR offers women the opportunity to hold high-level, corporate positions, so the career-oriented find empowerment in a PR position,” Chesney said. “We see it on Sex and the City, we see it on Mad Men and we see in a ton of other places; these women portray power and they have it all.”

***

If there’s any takeaway from all this, it’s that the women-in-PR trend started happening for a number of reasons, and it’s not inherently bad, so it never stopped. I get the idea that the average girl is brought up believing that it’s good to be personable and collaborative. She gets to college, and classes that involve reading and writing appeal to her the most. She graduates and, like any rational actor, gravitates toward the field that will remunerate her best—and maybe even provide some stability so she can have a family.

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

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