Back to the Future: Gender prejudices, the glass ceiling and work-life balance contradictions – what research tells us about the communications profession in Europe

A blog by Professor Dr Ralph Tench, Research Director of Leeds Business School (Leeds Beckett University, UK) on 18 years of findings from the European Communications Monitor respective of women in public relations and communications.

We have been collecting data through the European Communication Monitor (ECM) for 18 years and it is disturbing to see that little changes when it comes to the role of women in public relations and communication. Annually the ECM monitors female practitioners and gender issues in the profession. We have investigated how gender equality achievements are perceived and also explored the awareness of the glass ceiling and its causes and responsibilities at the individual, organisational and profession level (Zerfass et al, 2020).

Since the United Nations addressed gender equality as the fifth of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), businesses in general and the PR and communication industry in particular, have promoted discussion on the issue. Special reports (i.e., CIPR, 2017; GWPR, 2019) along with particular networks to enhance women’s leadership have been established and gained traction. Industry reports and the most recent scientific meta-studies (Place & Vardeman-Winter, 2018; Topić et al., 2020) corroborate that gender inequalities and discriminations still persist in the communications field.

Gender issues remain a particular concern in an industry where three out of four departments and agencies in Europe employ more women than men, but still only one out of two leaders are women. Over half of practitioners (55.4%) observe an improvement in gender equality in their country, but disagreement arises when it comes to evaluating how much has actually been done to support female practitioners: every second man (50.1%) believes enough has been done, while most women (45.2%) strongly dispute that. The glass ceiling refers to unacknowledged barriers that keep female practitioners from rising in the hierarchy (Dowling, 2017). There are still 32% of European communication practitioners that deny the glass ceiling exists at any level. 42.6% acknowledge the problem at the professional level in their country, but only 22.4% concede it’s an issue in their own organisation or department.

According to previous research, denial occurs in the field (Yeomans, 2019) and is most commonly seen in male practitioners (Zerfass et al., 2014). This study shows that only three out of ten male respondents (29.6%) acknowledge the problem in the profession and only 11.2% accept it as observable in their organisation or department. In contrast, every third female practitioner (29.4%) believes they have been personally affected.

When considering factors that perpetuate the glass ceiling, the results corroborate previous research (Catalyst, 2004; GWPR, 2019; Meng & Neill, 2020; Moreno et al., 2020). The majority identify issues at the organisational level: lack of flexibility to take care of family obligations (61.6%) and intransparent promotion policies (57.9%). Barriers at the macro level of the profession are also identified – a lack of networks and programmes for women (39.2%) and too few inspiring female role models (33.9%). Yet, at the individual level a lack of motivation and competencies of female practitioners is identified by a small number of respondents (15.4%), less than two out of ten respondents. Because psychological and cognitive differences are not empirically conclusive, gender differences tend to be explained today through educational, social and cultural factors (Mazei et al., 2015; Tench et al., 2017). Responsibilities for overcoming the glass ceiling are also placed at the organisational level for 65.3% of respondents. Nevertheless, CCOs and agency CEOs tend to attribute shared responsibilities to the professional communities and female employees.

The results of this study reinforce that gender prejudices still exist in the profession in Europe. The main factors for the glass ceiling relate to work-life balance conflicts and interventions are needed firstly from organisations and secondly from professional communities.

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