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Don’t just lean in – look in too

by Victoria Pearson

There is no doubt that the spotlight on gender issues is brighter than ever before. The #MeToo movement, compulsory gender pay gap reporting, and even the media scrutiny of Meghan Markle’s feminist credentials all highlight that there is much in our culture that still militates against true equality.

ONS statistics cited in the recent CIPR State of the Profession 2017/18 report show that women make up 56% of the PR profession. While this percentage is declining year-on-year (it was 63% as recently as 2013), PR is still a field where women predominate. Yet the report notes that the gender pay gap – stripping out factors that influence salaries such as part-time work – is rising, and now stands at £6,725. The World PR Report 2017 shows that senior PR roles are disproportionately filled by men – 78% of CEOs in the top 30 PR agencies worldwide are male and the pay gap widens as you move up the ranks.

There is a huge amount of research about implicit bias – the subconscious internalisation of gender and other cultural norms that influence our decision-making and interpersonal interactions. While I have rarely encountered genuine antipathy or open discrimination towards women in the workplace, there have been stereotypes and assumptions aplenty. From the senior male colleague who asked me to collect his drycleaning (I said no) to an older male client who covered my ears when someone in the room swore (I laughed, because I really couldn’t think of anything else to do). Culturally, we continue to have different standards for women, especially in leadership.

What is particularly concerning is how women as well as men internalise these stereotypes and how this affects our career development. Research confirms that women generally won’t apply for a role unless they feel 100% qualified, whereas men will often be more speculative. Women tend to underestimate their intelligence and abilities, while men tend to overestimate. Evidence suggests that women disproportionately suffer from the ‘confidence gap’, fed in no small part by the fact that we encourage boys to take more risks, and in doing so learn to accept occasional failure.

Without question, I have demonstrated many of these limiting behaviours. I have reached a real turning point, though, since I recently took on a challenging leadership role, one that many of these internalised attitudes told me that I was ill-equipped to tackle. I’ve learnt a huge amount about communications and PR – but more valuably I’ve learnt a lot about myself. I am not an imposter – I’m good at my job, I have good judgment and so I’ve gained the confidence of senior colleagues. Sure, sometimes I’m making it up as I go along, but that’s ok because our knowledge and experience is never perfect or complete. I took a leap of faith and I landed on my feet. The little niggles in my head are still there, but I’m getting much better at ignoring them.

There is obviously much more that needs to be done to support women, and others, in the workplace – flexible working, name-blind recruitment, training on implicit bias, aggressively tackling harassment, to name a very few. I am also deeply suspicious about ‘solutions’ that push the responsibility for improving women’s place in the world back onto women. Yet for many of us, though, fighting those little voices, believing in our own abilities, taking risks and developing a more honest appreciation of our strengths are all crucial if we are to aim higher. A bit of clear-eyed self-reflection – looking inwards and considering the role we play in our own career aspirations – can go a long way.

Victoria Pearson is the Head of Corporate Communication Marketing, Communication and Engagement at the University of Reading.

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