Scaling walls and secret elevator banks: understanding what’s really stopping women in PR from reaching the C-Suite

My favourite Hillary Clinton line from the recent Democratic Convention was ‘When there are no ceilings the sky's the limit.’  So there I am feeling all inspired and empowered and Kevin Roberts has to go and claim that the glass ceiling no longer exists because, to paraphrase, many women opt off the corporate career ladder and choose happiness instead of progression. Um…. What??! The industry’s reaction was scathing and to their credit, Publicis’ response was swift. 

So while no one is willing to accept that we have reached a ‘post ceiling’ state, I have to be honest that the comment touched a nerve. Over the past few years the PR industry has become much more vocal about the uncomfortable discrepancy between women employed within the industry and women holding executive positions. As Kelly Parisi of Lean In so accurately said, ‘PR does not have a pipeline problem, it has a promotion problem.’

While I’m grateful that we have begun to expose lack of female leadership as an issue, I am left with a lingering, gnawing question which is…why?  There are lots of hypotheses to consider – maybe after all of this hot mess that he caused, Roberts is right, we’re opting out of leadership positions by choice – prioritising family and quality of life over shiny titles and bigger pay checks; maybe as Susan Collantuono suggests in her TED talk women aren’t rising from middle management because we aren’t focused enough on honing our business, strategic and financial acumen, which have a disproportionate influence on progression; or maybe we are just not asking for it, and women in communications need better negotiation training to give us the confidence and skills to demand what we deserve. 

We don’t know the answer, and it is likely a combination of reasons and factors.  But I’m bored of talking about what the problem is and I’m ready to start talking about what’s causing it – it’s time to replace speculation with an explanation.  I believe that it’s incumbent upon our industry to seek those answers by undertaking research – speaking to current female executives, female executives who are no longer in role and a range of women who have opted out of career progression to start to gain some genuine insight and understanding as to what’s really happening. Only at that point we will be able to create interventions and offer useful support instead of establishing yet another mentorship program, which is starting to feel suspiciously more like a plaster than a path towards progress.

While I’m mid tirade, I also want to question the relevance of the glass ceiling metaphor.  Obviously I get it, but I can’t help but feel that talking about opening doors seems more relevant.  I mean how am I supposed to reach that glass ceiling – is there a secret elevator bank somewhere that I’m not privy to? Or am I expected to scale the wall…in heels? And like Sheryl Sandberg (a woman that I’m starting to suspect I would follow off a bridge if she asked), I feel passionately that women have an obligation to help other women progress in the workforce – so, when I crack that glass ceiling, am I supposed to send down a rope ladder – it all seems a bit logistically awkward, no?

That’s why for me, it seems more logical to talk about the difficulties women face in opening doors.  Pushing open a door can take considerable effort and energy, but if you’re lucky you have sponsors who can help you to open that door from their position on the inside. And of course, when the time comes, you can pay it forward and open the door for someone else, since last time I checked, doors still work both ways.  

Use whatever metaphor you like, as long as you acknowledge that there aren’t enough women in leadership positions in PR – especially when we make up 70 percent of the industry.  While I applaud continued discussion on this topic, I am impatient for the industry to take action. Only when we understand the barriers can we remove them, clearing the path for more doors to be opened. 

Avra Lorrimer

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search