What needs to change to get more women into the top PR jobs? Hint: Men, you can help!

An interview with Colin Byrne

In my role as head of international search agency Hanson Search, I’ve spent many hours talking to men and women alike about the diversity issues plaguing the PR industry. One of the most commonly discussed is the lack of women at the senior-level. Despite us being very good at getting women into the industry, we’re not so good at holding onto them.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about working fathers, because I believe that if we are to tackle these issues, then we need true parity between men and women. Otherwise, parental responsibilities will always fall on women and we’ll be stuck where we are forever.

I sat down with Colin Byrne, the UK and EMEA CEO of Weber Shandwick, to find out what he thinks must change in order to get more women into the top jobs in the PR industry.

Colin Byrne

We must embrace flexible working for BOTH men and women

When Colin first started out in PR, agencies were populated almost solely by men and all the assistants were ‘posh girls’ who had been told it was the only way for them to gain a foothold in the industry.

Now, the gender balance in PR has greatly improved, but there’s still more to be done. Until the industry embraces more flexible working for men and women, and more men feel confident taking parental leave, then we are going to lose talented women before they reach the top.

According to Colin, these are the key things the industry ought to do now to maintain the upwards trajectory of women in PR – particularly at the senior level.

Paternity leave needs to be normalised

“I asked to go on paternity leave 23 years ago, and my boss said ‘Fine, but don’t tell my wife that there’s such a thing!” It was pretty unusual at the time, but it hasn’t held me back,” said Colin.

And now, men need to be confident that sharing parental leave needn’t hold them back either. He explained: “At the moment I think many men feel that while they can ask to share parental leave, maybe it will be to the detriment of their career. We need clear policies and for people at the top to show that we genuinely support them doing it.”

If more men feel comfortable asking for paternity leave and flexible working schedules, then the burden of responsibility does not fall solely on women. This could make a huge difference and help us keep talented women in the workforce.

The world won’t end if you’re not at your desk

“There was a point in my career when I was leaving the house before the kids got up, and getting back after they went to bed.  It was depressing,” remembers Colin. “Then I realised that given half my clients weren’t even in this time zone there was really no need for me to be rushing to sit at a desk in central London every day. So one morning, I told my assistant I’d be in late because I was taking the kids to school and you know what, the world didn’t end.”

And the fact that the presenteeism isn’t the same as performance is something more people need to realise, believes Colin: “PR has changed. We no longer need to be in sync with the news cycle. So long as the client always comes first, there’s no need to be at your desk from 9-5.” 

Clients are humans with families too

“Often, we’re focused on ‘what the client thinks’, so we worry that they wouldn’t like someone going on paternity leave or working flexibly. But clients are people too, and they have families themselves.  They’re not about to turn around and question why we’ve allowed someone to go on paternity leave,” he said. What they really care about is having the best people on their team.

 “The thing clients hate the most is when good people disappear,” noted Colin. "And enabling good people to stay through flexible working is the way to prevent this. Remote access and modern technologies are all ways we can prevent that brain drain of women who leave the industry in their early 30s and that’s good news for everyone.”

Broader diversity issues in the PR industry

I look forward to the day when we no longer need to talk about diversity in the PR industry. But until then, we must continue to look for solutions that will level the playing field.

Read the first part of my conversation with Colin Byrne on broader diversity issues facing the PR industry here: how the PR industry needs to rethink its approach to diversity.

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If you're interested in reading more about the stigma of flexible working facing men and how it impacts women, read our blog here: Why we need to talk about working fathers

Posted on 07.11.2017

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