Why Are There So Many Women in Public Relations?

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.

“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.

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

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