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Interview with the editors of Gender and Public Relations

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We asked Gender and Public Relations editors Christine Daymon and Kristin Demetrious why they brought this collection together, and discusssed key ideas about gender in PR. Read what they had to say.

What prompted you to bring this collection together?

Christine: It was at a party in London about ten years ago that I first began to think seriously about gender issues in public relations. The party was a ten year celebration of graduates from the UK’s first undergraduate program in public relations. Chatting with these young men and women who’d been working for a decade in various roles in PR, I was struck by what they were telling me: all of them were working extremely long hours which in many cases precluded a social life outside the workplace and which certainly had an impact on family life; although many cared a great deal about PR work and the causes and companies they were involved in promoting, many women talked about opting out of PR altogether to gain some semblance of work-life balance; and the women also claimed amazement at their male colleagues’ fast climb into management positions. Their comments resonated with my own previous industry experience in PR. Moving then to Australia, I experienced gender discrimination for the first time in my career, and so I began researching gender from a feminist stance. As I spoke informally with fellow PR researchers, I discovered a great openness and enthusiasm for this under-explored area. And so Kristin and I became convinced of the need to write about gender from a critical perspective – and to encourage other PR scholars to do so too.

Kristin: I first became interested in how women were portrayed in public relations about seven or eight years ago. For me it was partly prompted by observing the changes in our first to third year public relations students. I noticed that over this time there seemed to be some invisible process whereby a distinct change in the way they dressed and performed occurred perhaps in response to what they thought was a ‘real’ PR role and identity. Keeping in touch with our students, I would definitely say part of this is explained by their encounters with the notion of gendered emotional labor – which is something that I also encountered when in working in PR – but it was not something that I saw that we were preparing students for. So from my point of view I saw this whole layer of complex social activity that was intrinsic to public relations that very few scholars were paying attention to. I also think this domain of study extends into new ideas about critical public relations and corporate social responsibility. We’re aiming high with this edited collection and I hope that research in this area might shape new business cultures.

Are there any essays that you particularly agree with or feel are particularly key in terms of getting a particular message about gender and public relations across?

Kristin: All our chapters speak about important topics in strong and original ways. But because a lot of my research is in activism and third sector groups like community, not for profits and NGOs, I was really drawn to chapters dealing with these themes. For example, Ian Somerville and Sahla Aroussi’s chapter on the protection of women in war and conflict zones and how an NGO promoted women’s rights in through a UN Resolution is a fantastic journey that shows the barriers to success and framing and lobbying strategies used to overcome this. Likewise Marianne Sison takes a forensic look at the passage of a Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines focussing on the activist, government and Catholic Church’s interactions. It is not oftentimes that we see the inner workings of these organisations and the interplay between them and the public. Again this is very innovative and important research. Equally Kay Weaver forges new ground in New Zealand when she investigates how identity is central to a women’s protest group MAdGE that campaigned against genetically engineered products. These chapters have surprising angles and are looking at important communicative relations from unusual perspectives. As such they come up with new insights.

Christine: I agree wholehearted with Kristin’s view that all the chapters thread a powerful message about gender through their illustrations and arguments. The findings of all the chapters emphasise the importance of researching this topic from a critical stance. Without bringing that perspective to our research, we are rarely alert to the powerful resources and positions that influence how PR is done, and also the power of PR to shape public meanings and practices. Because I’m always interested in what goes on inside public relations – the organizing and managing of PR, the cultures of public relations, and the lives of people who work in public relations –the chapter by the feminist writer, Jane Arthur, resonates with me because it highlights how gender is ingrained in organizational and professional cultures, with consequences for the reputations of individuals and organisations. More than that though is the way Jane also highlights how PR can be used positively and politically to mobilise public support for change. And this is a key message of the collection as a whole.

Overall, what picture do these interesting, yet varied essays, paint of gender in PR? Is there an overarching image, and if not, are there particular divergences that are important to note?

Kristin: Gender within this book is defined as an entire cultural field within which agents perform socially constructed and scripted roles of the feminine and masculine. So it is much broader than just talking about ‘women’ and ‘men’ – it’s all the cultural dynamics that go to construct these categories and the contexts that they work within. This is an interpretative approach which encourages differentiated understandings. We do think that this is one of the book’s greatest strengths and one of the reasons why it will appeal to a lot of people. There is no one way to understand gender but it is a cultural site through which power and authority and hierarchy intersect – so ultimately we can use gender to understand ethics, professionalisation, campaigning, organizing, etc. So our message is to pay attention to gender! It opens up new ground to understand and do things better.

Which of the essays in this collection would you say was the most radical in terms of its views on PR and gender?

Kristin: I don’t think one or another is more radical – each essay uses a different lens to make nuanced points and add to the conversation.

While I agree with Kristin’s point, I do think that her chapter is particularly worthy of attention because it’s probably one of the first PR texts to explore how the identities and behaviours of public relations practitioners are implicated in forces of conformity in fashion and bodily appearance. A radical thought indeed! Jane Arthurs’ and Donnalyn Pompper’s chapters also refer to embodiment, although Kristin tackles it head on, suggesting that the clothes-body complex is potentially responsible for limiting career trajectories.

Lana Rakow, University of North Dakota, USA, praises the book for opening up ‘new insights into the taken-for-granted approaches to gender and public relations.’ What do you think is the biggest assumption about gender in PR? Would you be able to give a brief description of how the essays in this collection counter them?

Christine: We think that the biggest assumption about gender is that it exclusively concerns women. It doesn’t – gender is a concept that underpins the logic of a whole range of social relations. In PR a lot of people focus on the fact that a lot more women are joining the profession – the feminization aspect – and while that is important it is not the only way to think about gender. There is a real gap in knowledge about how inequalities are structured through gender and reproduced. So this book is not just about deconstructing these discourses but also about reconstructing discourses.

Your book explores thinking about power relations and privilege for both men and women. Could you give some examples of female privilege in PR? How does it express itself and in what situations?

Yes, I think we have to get away from the notion that there are fixed categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ and there are a set of fixed cultural experiences. These are socially negotiated but within the context that certain ideologies have dominated the process such as capitalism and heteronormativity. What we are seeing in this book are points of transformation and departure – where gendered relations within public relations are very different to what might be imagined.

Please could you give some examples of male privilege in PR? How does it differ, if at all, from female privilege?

It wasn’t very long ago that that there were a range of structural and cultural divides in the workplace, around areas like pay, skills building and career opportunities - something that has been brought to life quite brilliantly in the US series Mad Men. To somehow suggest that all the cultural factors that normalized sexism and sleazy behavior have gone away is fanciful. Much of that stuff is still out there and it can be working in other more subtle ways – or in new ways But both Kristin and I deal with this in different ways. For example my chapter with Anne Surma looks at the daily lives of practitioners and how gender and its privileges influence how practitioners negotiate their different identities as workers, home-makers, partners, parents etc. …

… whereas I explore privilege in workplaces, through specific sites like sexual harassment and the clothes-body complex. Through this I have identified a range of limiting traps for women such as focusing on your appearance rather than the substance of the job that is likely to lead to a career plateau. But interestingly today this can be the case for men too, particularly gay men.

Are there ways in which women can level the playing field in relation to male privilege?

Kristin: I think this question is about solutions or reform more generally to achieve equality and fairness in the workplace. It’s a fraught area because PR is all about performance, in which exaggeration and sexualisation is normatively considered part and parcel. Social change is possible but only if the movement of ideas strikes. How much is a woman in PR constrained by sexual hierarchies of the workplace - and have to play to a kind of ‘corporate geisha’ role – and where does this lead her in ten years time? I think until this sort of thing is brought to light then, no, you won’t get that sort of deeper reform in hiring and promotion practices.

Christine: Behind this question seems to be the notion of agency to motivate social change and bring about just practices in the workplace and in the occupation of PR. In many cases individuals can and do influence change through how they behave and with whom or what they identify. In some cases, that can be by choosing not to engage at all and just opting out. But that doesn’t help systemic change. Others reflect on what it is that they privilege in their lives and its value, thus causing them to rethink where and how to focus their future time and energies. Women, for instance, who prioritize their families oftentimes find themselves less able and interested to be engaged in the PR workplace at certain times of their lives than others. This can have the effect of marginalising them and limiting their careers because, as Anne Surma and I have argued in our chapter, in today’s society home and personal needs are made subservient to the corporate and the client. If reform is to be instituted then, reformers and activists have to take account of the broader cultures, discourses and relationships circulating in society, including in the occupation of public relations.

Is there a way that the playing field can be levelled, full stop? Do you have any practical suggestions or techniques for achieving this?

Christine: We might begin with workplace policies about flexible working practices. We might introduce peer mentoring schemes with networks beyond the workplace. We might encourage leadership role-modeling where a concern with building ethical relationships (with employees, clients and communities) is favored over celebrity, spin and performance. Executive training programs on gender and leadership would assist. More equitable practices certainly need to be introduced in our schools and universities through education policies and classroom teaching, in curriculums and pedagogic strategies. I’ve been amazed in my teaching how many undergraduates dismiss the notion that women can be disadvantaged in the PR workplace, and that public relations campaigns are oftentimes gender-blind. But once they’ve been introduced to feminist writers and begun to read contemporary media reports through new eyes, then they’re alert and sensitive to the issues. But ideas for reform in education and the workplace don’t even begin to touch where new thinking and new practices really need to start, and that’s at the macro, political level, with government itself.

Kristin: Well can anything really end with a full stop? I don’t believe so but we can get close with education. I think it is really important to introduce the idea that gender is cultural site through which all aspects of public relations can viewed. Personally I want to equip students for the realities of the workplace because public relations is not a highly unionised profession. There are some excellent workplaces out there but some less so. Who is looking out for students? Do we know how relevant are these matters when determining who will be the managers and decision makers of the future? Gender has to be included in public relations curriculums because otherwise we’re failing them. In terms of crediting people for the innovative communicative campaigns – some of the least discussed are doing the best work.

Øyvind Ihlen, University of Oslo, Norway, says the volume goes ‘well beyond liberal feminist approaches.’ Could you explain the ways in which it does this?

Christine: The comment refers to the fact that the book doesn’t come from a conventional stance where women are seen as a universal or unified group who have unequal status with men. Liberal feminist thinking would suggest that all women are the same and need to have equal status in PR with men. Writers from this stance claim that women are the main group who are discriminated against. We’re interested in a more complex view of injustice and disadvantage than this, although we do agree that in many societies and professions women are indeed discriminated against. This is why the focus of many of our chapters is on women. But disadvantage is usually based on more than just gender (although we mustn’t forget that men too can be disempowered in public relations campaigns, especially gay men). In thinking about gender, we can’t overlook how this is cross-cut with race and ethnicity and age and sexuality and class and ableness. It’s the way that the book acknowledges and tackles this nexus in relation to public relations that is what we think Oyvind Ihlen is particularly referring to.

All titles in the Routledge New Directions in Public Relations & Communication Research series can be viewed on this page.

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