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Hooray for the PR Week Mentoring Programme. But why, in 2014, do we need it?

30 January 2014

PR Week’s Mentoring Programme has just launched. 15 women working in the communications industry have been paired with 15 outstanding, senior women in the industry for a year of mentoring that will also inspire events and discussion. PR Week’s Claire Murphy was inspired to set up the programme in part by figures that reveal a disproportionate number of women at the junior end of the business compared to the senior end.

From Davos to Woman’s Hour; from Quotas to the rage-inducing words of Nigel Farage, the debate about women’s place in business is getting louder. The economic forecasters tell us that soon enough we’ll all be working remotely, flexibly and until we’re older. The 24/7 culture of engagement tells us our clients need us all the time. The arguments for a multi-dimensional work force that reflects society have been made over and over again. As employees we crave a sense of purpose and belonging. The workplace of the future looks more open, more flexible, less structured. But the hard truth is that if you’re a woman (with or without children) it’s still less likely that you’ll get to the conventional top of a business than your male colleagues. Women with children still experience the attitude that, as one person we spoke to put it, “if you aren’t at your desk at 8am you aren’t considered a contender.” Maternity affects women disproportionately but the PR Week Programme is not for mothers, it’s for women. And it’s the first layer of a broader debate about wider equality.

We asked three of the programmes mentors, Alison Clarke, CEO UK & Ireland, Grayling; Molly Aldridge, Global CEO M&C Saatchi PR and Mary Whenman, MD Corporate, Financial & Public Affairs, Weber Shandwick, for their personal views on why this mentoring is needed and what we need to do to retain more great female talent in PR and communications.

Grayling’s Alison Clarke shares the view that the PR industry disproportionately welcomes women. ‘Women lead consultancies and lead regions but there’s not a single woman that leads the world. Not one,’ she says. Her hunch is that women get to regional status then stop. And that the reasons are twofold. First, electing to have a family and choosing to return to work has a bearing. ‘You can’t run a region and not work Fridays. CEOs are 24/7. That goes with the turf,’ she says. Secondly, even if you’ve returned to work full time in a senior role the reality is that the bigger the region the more time you are on a plane and that’s a challenge. Clarke thinks this is truly is a gender point, that women just don’t like it. ‘However great your partner is it’s still the woman fixing family life. Even if you have an army to help you, it’s still you running the army. It takes up time in your head,’ she says. Her conclusion is that as you go up the agency ladder things become challenging then difficult then not very appealing. In other words, women may exercise a preference to stay put at a certain level.

M&C Saatchi PR’s Molly Aldridge sees a more equal gender balance in PR than across other industries but admits you hit a glass ceiling when you hit marriage then children and that it’s harder to get back. It seems most women ‘fall out’ of the PR industry at Associate Director level where the two main challenges are in managing client expectations, and inspiring and motivating your team. Aldridge explains this is the point at which you’re at the coal face as the client’s “go to” person. ‘Some clients expect 9-6 attention, some don’t, some are in different time zones, etc.’ she says. ‘You can set boundaries but it’s competitive out there so you can only be so demanding on your client. You need brilliant time management and to be organised to within an inch of your life.’

Mary Whenman says balancing career and family can be done and that sometimes the media make it seem like an insurmountable problem when it isn’t. Whenman has done it herself. ‘I haven’t worked five full days a week since 2004 and have held two Managing Director roles on a non-full time basis. It’s completely possible to do,’ she says. There are plenty of other examples – at one level down from CEO at Weber Shandwick, for example, three out of four London Managing Directors are women and a significant number of EVPs in Europe. While Whenman was at Grayling there were more women than men on the board. But, she sums up, ‘Even if the PR industry is supportive of female talent something isn’t right, is it? I remember looking around my first ever board meeting and for an instant, and for the first time, I felt distinctly female.’

What are the fundamentals you need to get to the top today? Our mentors concur that three things are vital, over and above an ability to do the job well. You need a supportive partner and the agreement that both careers are equal. (If you both have an overseas meeting on the same day one of you will have to compromise, for example). You need to work for a company that provides flexible working for everyone. (Giving men flexibility inadvertently gives women more opportunity, too.) You need cast iron childcare and a backup plan if you have children. Your employer needs to know that, every now and again, it will all go wrong and you need to handle it professionally when it does. Whenman adds a fourth thing: ‘You need feminist men at senior positions in PR. Unless you have these men supporting women it won’t work.’

There is consensus that full-scale attitude change is needed too. One person admitted that the financial PR sector is probably the worst for women, saying that she interviews women for freelance roles who are six-figure senior but can no longer sustain things and have turned freelance. The stereotype of the man in London and the wife in the country with the kids and no job is a hard one to change. We’re not at a tipping point yet.

After ‘falling out’ of the industry women go freelance, or stop working altogether, or change career or set up their own boutiques so that they have more control over their time. Many also move in-house. There is a strong perception that moving to an in-house role will allow more flexible hours. Although it’s likely to be better set up for favourable working and full of other people with families Clarke wonders if this is such a panacea. ‘It’s certainly different but in-house the CEO is down the hallway so it can also be very tough.’

If some sort of flexibility in the traditional working day is essential to fulfil your responsibilities to client and child then why is it the case that so few employers really offer it? Clarke wonders if big companies can really deal with completely flexible working when they have to corral groups of people together to cope with the mentality of “jump on this conference call NOW!” Aldridge says it’s up to senior people to lead by example and demonstrate the work life balance. Not just women but senior men, too. ‘At M&C we are flexible. I want great female talent across the senior team. Have I lost great women? Yes there are two I’d hire in an instant if they’d come back,’ she says.

PR Week’s Mentoring Programme wants to encourage many voices on many issues. Besides work/life balance there are also straightforward gender issues to confront and this is where the mentors see there is an important job to be done, helping their mentees navigate a path to the top. It’s what Clarke refers to as developing your personal brand, or ‘how you advance your career by being someone that other people want to work with. Managing upwards and sideways’.

It’s going to be fascinating project. Whenman sees a clear difference from a decade ago when there was only one way to hold down a directorship – a full time nanny and a full time job. ‘By 2005 when I had my first child, I went freelance, the first generation that did this. You learn to take things a step at a time. Not to try and solve everything all at once.’ Aldridge also perceives the current generation to be thinking of the future far more. ‘We did it one step at a time. They are thinking about the total career journey ahead.’

In 32-years as a talent consultant Amanda Fone, managing partner of f1 recruitment, says that women have always asked her how to juggle a career with marriage and having a family but that men never ask these questions. And that the problem of the lack of women at the top of the industry won’t be solved by women alone. ‘This is not a women’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem,’ she says. ‘Men and women, together, have to work out a way to create business structures that are fit for purpose for the future. Otherwise, women will create their own flexible and remote working businesses as they are in the SME and micro business space.’ This, in turn, will lead to flexible working for men too. Fone’s view is that the world has changed and, with the exception of some companies in the telco sector, for example, business structures and ways of working have been slow to catch up. ‘It’s always hard to confront change and some PR agencies are like the proverbial tankers that find it difficult to change course. But be under no illusion; change will happen. The PR Week Mentoring Programme is one step on the journey.’