It’s been quite the quarter century for women working in public relations. I’ve lived all of it, as observer and practitioner, for exactly half my life: last month marked 25 years since I started working at PRWeek, as a ridiculously young and naïve features editor on the cusp of a new Millennium.

I knew quite literally nothing about PR, having spent the five years since I graduated working at other Haymarket trade titles that had never heard of the creative industries, but it was pretty much love at first sight. I had no idea, of course, that I’d still be writing about, championing and challenging the industry as I cruised past my 50th birthday last year.

I’ve written before in these pages about my 25-year love affair with the PR industry. It’s not just about the work, it’s about the people – and particularly the extraordinary women I’ve met, worked with, admired and forged friendships with over that time.

Full disclosure: I intended to finish this piece to coincide with International Women’s Day last week, as a tribute to how women in PR have navigated and overcome challenges and forged positive change – and as a reflection of how far we still have to go to achieve equality, equity and balance in a fast-paced and rapidly-evolving industry. Inevitably, my own personal challenges (two teens in GCSE and A Level years, plus perimenopausal brain fog/disorganisation/anxiety) got in the way of meeting my own deadline.

But this is actually a perfect, and positive, place to start: the fact I can even say this without apology or beating around the bush shows how many of the taboos around speaking about women and working mothers’ lived experiences have been broken over recent years.

When I started working in the industry, you simply didn’t admit, for instance, to having such bad period pains you couldn’t function for a day, rather than a stomach bug or some other euphemism. As recently as a few years ago, I was basically pretending that my kids didn’t exist for work purposes, often frantically trying to be in two places at once (at the detriment of my own mental health) rather than feeling I could just be honest and say I had a childcare issue or had to arrive a bit late or leave a bit early for the school run. And no-one ever, ever mentioned menopause, or endometriosis, or infertility in a work context.

So the advent of female-centred workplace policies around all aspects of fertility and parenting, and the freedom to finally speak our truth on what our lives and bodies are really like, has been a joy, and a relief, to observe.

I was about to apologise, there, for using that cringey phrase “speak our truth”, but I stopped myself. This is another thing that has changed but is still a work in progress: women’s tendency – one might even say our imperative, thanks to generations of societal conditioning and expectations – to apologise. To say sorry for making a perfectly reasonable request of our colleagues, softening and often watering down our demands with terms like “if you wouldn’t mind…” or “it would be amazing if you could…”. To make ourselves small, lesser than. To not speak up, or accept we will be spoken over by the men in the room.

And while the industry hasn’t had a truly headline-hitting #MeToo scandal, and the days of “blowjobs for bonuses”, as one male agency boss once reminisced about to me, are (hopefully) long gone, there’s still far too much misogyny – including internalised misogyny – in the industry. It’s a super-tired cliché because it’s still true: while a male comms leader being direct is seen as strong and assertive, the same words from a woman can mean she is labelled as being difficult, bossy, a ballbreaker, a hard bitch.

I still default to apologising for the sheer temerity of asking for things to be done when I need them done, as many of us do, but I’m much more aware of it now, and try and edit out qualifying statements in emails. Oestrogen plummeting off a cliff helps here too: with age comes not just wisdom, but – as many of my female contemporaries will relate – the number of fucks you have left to give about what people think of you reduces to approximately zero.

Growing awareness of diversity and inclusion within the PR industry has also helped. Companies are now actively seeking balanced boards and recognising the value that female perspectives bring to strategic decision-making – although let’s not pretend career progression, let alone having their voices heard, has got much easier for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women.

These broader cultural shifts are mirrored by the rise in female leadership in the PR industry. No longer merely junior “PR girls”, patronised by bosses and clients alike, the representation of women in senior roles and as agency founders – and their influence on the industry’s direction of travel and modus operandi – has gone through a metamorphosis.

Many pioneering female agency founders of the 80s and 90s are still fiercely nailing the world of comms, from continuing to innovate in agencies, to non-exec roles and in-house leadership, and there are few big or networked agencies that haven’t now had a global or regional female leader.

One of the catalysts for this change has been greater recognition of the strengths that women bring to the table in the PR world. I think it’s true to say that we are generally more effective communicators, have greater emotional intelligence, are more empathetic and have better relationship-building skills than men. These have become indispensable assets in an industry that thrives on establishing and maintaining connections.

This is especially true in this complex era, where businesses are not only more focused on employee wellbeing and desperate to engage distracted and overstimulated audiences, but where C-suite leaders are relying far more on PR advisors to advise on how and where they should show up, collaborate, demonstrate purpose and progression, and speak out on social and geopolitical issues.

Increased flexibility in the workplace – supercharged since the pandemic – has also been a crucial factor in reshaping the PR landscape for women. The ability to work remotely has empowered women to navigate professional paths on their terms and is enabling women to ascend to leadership positions without quite so much painful compromise in their personal lives.

But dropping the commute, flexing hours and part-time roles (which, let’s face it, can sometimes mean just fitting five days’ work into four) is certainly not a panacea. Balancing the demands of a fast-paced, stressful industry with family and caring responsibilities – which overwhelmingly still fall to women – remains a major sticking point in female career progression.

Mentorship and networking opportunities for women in PR have blossomed over recent years, and this has helped to foster a mutually-supportive environment that encourages professional growth and advancement. The growth of Women in PR in the UK and Global Women in PR (GWPR), for instance, both of which run successful mentoring schemes, has been beautiful to see.

(Again, there’s still a caveat here: it hurts me deeply to say it, but women don’t always support other women. We are all under such pressure that the sisterhood is showing cracks; many women I know in the industry have had a scarring and even therapy-prompting experience with a female colleague or boss.)

GWPR’s Annual Index study of the experiences of women working in the industry around the world is an important piece of research, and while it highlights many of the positive changes I’ve touched on, it also always makes depressing reading in several regards.

The latest study highlighted not only the incredibly frustrating (if not enraging), ongoing issue of a significant pay gap for women in the industry that never seems to get any smaller – and is even worse for women of colour – but also the continued prevalence of harassment towards women, from sexual assault to bullying. It also underlines the fact that, despite the rise in female leadership and flexible working, breaking through the glass ceiling to board level continues to be an uphill battle, especially for women who have children.

There have been mighty leaps forward for women over the 25 years I’ve been writing about and working in PR but there are so, so many challenges and obstacles still to hurdle. We may have left the superficial stereotypes behind (although maybe we haven’t quite relinquished the partying…) but I hope in my remaining years in the comms industry I will at least see the eradication of the female pay gap – and more women than not saying they have found a place where they can truly thrive.