Women Leaders and Sexism in PR

There’s nothing higher on a PR writing instructor’s “things-I-don’t-want-to-do-on-my-day-off” list than write. But as I was

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Women leaders and sexism in the 21st Century.

putzing around on Facebook this morning, I ran across a photo of past PRSA chairs as they welcomed the newest former chair, Mark McClellan, APR, into their ranks. All are distinguished professionals, all have sacrificed time, energy, money and sleep to lead this organization that has given so much to those of us in the profession. They are colleagues and in some cases, friends…and the thought crossed my mind as I “liked” and congratulated them was that most of them were men.

I didn’t make that comment on Facebook, because I didn’t want to take away from the moment. But I couldn’t stop wondering why there were so few women in the photo. PR as a profession is predominantly women (70-75 percent is the figure I’ve run across the most), so why have so few women ascended to the top of the profession? Counting incoming chair Jane Dvorak, APR, Fellow PRSA, in 2017 the total number of women leading PRSA will have reached the grand total of 13. Thirteen women in 69 years. And seven of those 13 – over half – have been in the past 15 years. As Heather Whaling points out in her blog post on this incident, only 40 percent of agency leaders are female.

So what’s the big deal? The organization is changing, right? Women are bound to be elected to leaders more frequently now, you say. Then why is it that, nearly two full decades into the 21st century, in a profession dominated by and increasingly led by women, are we spending the last day of the industry’s biggest conference talking about a sexist tweet, posted by an accredited PR professional. If anyone should know better, it should be him, right?

Apparently not.

During Monday’s keynote session by former White House CIO, Theresa Payton, one audience member thought it was perfectly acceptable to make a sexist comment about her:


He later tweeted that he was making a “common sense practical suggestion for public speakers, men & women,” about what speakers should wear so as not to distract from the message, but as any PR expert should know, the damage was done. After all, how often do you have men wondering aloud about what other men have under their shirts? Exactly.

I’ll leave it to Heather, Gini Dietrich and others to dissect what he should and shouldn’t have said because they’ve done so eloquently, and just say that I am highly disappointed that an accredited public relations professional couldn’t have managed his own personal crisis better, before or after the tweet went out. None of us are perfect, all of us have prejudices and failings, and all of us tweet/post things we shouldn’t. I just expect APRs to know better. The problem is that all too often we engage our mouths before our brains have stopped spinning, and things we think in our less-than-sterling moments but would never otherwise say publicly slip out. And then to say nothing more than, “I apologize?” Seriously?



This incident does make me think about the role of women in business and in PRSA. Is this why there have been so few women elected to lead PRSA? Perhaps if we had more women leaders we’d have less sexist comments. But with Hillary Clinton poised to become the first woman president of this country, I expect to see more sexist behavior, not less. It seems that we all need some help understanding how to exist with women leaders. I agree with Heather’s suggestion that PRSA should consider offering sessions on women and leadership, especially since it seems that we are just as bad at dealing with sexism as those business leaders we are supposed to counsel on communication issues. Seems like a few sessions on ethics wouldn’t come amiss, either. I was talking with a PRSA colleague just the day before about our own personal experiences with sexism and groping males – I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find that particular virus infesting my own profession as well. We’ve apparently got a long way to go in dealing with this particular problem. So for those of you who need advice on how not to be sexist, here’s some suggestions from my own nearly 30 years of professional experience:

  • Don’t comment on women’s bodies. Unless we are fashion models or beauty pageant contestants, our appearance is irrelevant to how well we do the job. That also applies to mentioning how often we smile, the pitch of our voices or how we wear our hair. And that reminds me…
  • Don’t discuss the appropriateness of women’s clothing choices. You’re not paying for or wearing them, we are.
  • Look at my face when we’re talking. My face. Higher. Up here.
  • Don’t step in and answer a question that was directed to a woman. Even sports – especially sports – questions. We don’t need you to run interference for us. In my house, I’M the one with the sports knowledge, not my husband.
  • Don’t ever use the phrase, “for a girl” as in, “You’re smart, for a girl.” For one thing, I haven’t been a “girl” in 40+ years.
  • Watch your words: Men get angry. Women get angry, too, so why would you say we’re “hysterical, mad” or “hormonal?” Oh, and by the way, “ball-busting” is out, too. You’ll survive. And two women disagreeing is not a “catfight.” So don’t refer to it as one. Oh, and drop the irrelevant gender qualifications, as in “female executive” or “female journalist.” That computer keyboard doesn’t know and doesn’t care what gender the human is. It’s irrelevant.
  • No touching anything close to the breasts, butt, or groin. If it’s normally covered by a swimsuit, it’s hands off. That goes for hugs, too, unless you are a friend as well as a colleague – and we women make that determination, not you.
  • Please stop asking stupid questions of women that you wouldn’t ask of men, like “how do you manage to balance it all?” You don’t ask male executives how they manage being a father and a business executive, so don’t ask women that.
  • Don’t ask what my husband thinks when a financial decision is involved. If his input were necessary, he’d be here.
  • Don’t ask us why we “can’t take a joke” after saying something sexist. The only joke is the person uttering the sexist comment – and we’re not laughing. Not anymore.

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