The PR industry as a whole has become increasingly dominated by women in the last two decades, both in Europe and Asia.
So then why does the director of communications, still tend to be a man?
It’s a question that was posed recently by the Prospect teams in Hong Kong and Singapore at breakfast roundtables with top senior female PR/ Comms practitioners. Here we shared our insights into the challenges women face when climbing the corporate ladder and gathered valuable feedback from the roundtable participants.
The lack of female role models in the industry
Many women point to the lack of female role models as a major barrier to success. After all, if women aren’t represented at the higher levels of an organisation, it becomes difficult for others to identify themselves as capable of securing a seat at that table.
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“Currently, there are a few high profile leaders who are role models for women in public and private sector organisations…These women will have either sacrifice work/life balance in some way or portrayed as a ‘superwoman’ who make majority of the female workforce feel inadequate as they cannot possibly replicate their performance.”
– Sara Norton, Comms veteran in the financial services industry
“I think that there are a number of great female role models in senior comms positions – but they tend to be on the agency side or in consumer brands. It’s harder to break into the senior positions in financial services – it’s the unconscious bias factor coming into play.”
– Clare Williams, Director, Asia Pacific Corporate Communications, Barclays
How to climb the ladder, one step at a time
There might be a shortage of senior female role models in the industry today, but there are ways to change this over time. Some participants at the roundtables suggested that women outside of communication roles might be the communication leaders of the future.
“To empower women in communications, we need to rotate them out of communications. Many men who lead communications functions come from outside of the traditional communications career path, and by giving female leaders similar opportunities, they will gain new skills, broaden their network and I hope to be perceived more competitively vis-à-vis male candidates.”
– Beth Smits, Head of Public Affairs & Communications Asia Pacific, Swift
Others felt that a more formalised structure in the industry would help to create a community and drive change.
“We need to create and formalise an industry standards framework for the communications sector. This framework needs to be championed and jointly developed ideally by the government, top women in the communications sector, academia and corporations who pledge to support this cause.”
– Jean Zhuang, Director, Tulchan Communications
“We need to lead by example. We need to celebrate the women who have been trailblazers in the communications sector so that from a young age, women have role models with whom they can identify with.”
– Emma Dale, Co-Founder, Managing Director (Asia), Prospect
Some participants felt that the key was ensuring strong mentorship to groom young talent for future. Mentoring can provide highly effective two-way interactions that help develop skills and confidence. This does not have to be limited to senior executives; peer relationships can be equally beneficial. Even reverse mentoring between senior and junior staff can encourage future female leaders.
“The great thing about ANZ is very effective and supportive informal sponsorship. There are lots of internal projects, committees and forums that give female talent exposure to these sponsors and internal networks. I like this organic approach because the people who can be the change will naturally gravitate towards this model.”
– Libby Armstrong, Head of Communications and Corporate Affairs, ANZ
“Reverse mentoring is needed so that future leaders are wired to think about growing and nurturing people around them from the get go. If a real culture change is the need of the hour, then it really does need to be pervasive from the get go vs. a top down approach, more so in the current climate.”
– Barkha Patel, CEO, Burson Marsteller SEA
While equality for women in the workplace is undoubtedly improving, significant attention and resources must be focused on recruiting, retaining and developing female leaders. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also smart business.
The writer is Emma Dale, co-founder and managing director (Asia), Prospect Resourcing, a global recruitment business for the PR and Communications industry.