LONDON — Women in the PR industry are facing discrimination on the grounds of age at almost the same levels as gender discrimination, according to the results of Global Women in PR’s Annual Index research.

Of the 53% of female PR professionals surveyed who claim to have faced discrimination in the workplace, 27% said this was based on gender, closely followed by age (23%). By contrast discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, race, disability, religion and sexual orientation were experienced by 5% or less of respondents.

A stark revelation was the level of ageism prevalent in PR agencies. Two-thirds of women currently working in PR agencies could not see themselves being there beyond the age of 50. By contrast 56% of in-house PRs plan to stay in the same sector of the comms industry.

Just over 60% of survey respondents stated that their companies had diversity and inclusion policies in place, rising to 74% among those working in-house. Gender equality was the most common target highlighted (62%), but only 37% set age targets in their policies – much lower than disability (54%) and sexual orientation (51%).

For those facing discrimination, the major impact on their career was being overlooked for a promotion or pay rise (53%). Confidence and wellbeing were also badly affected (46%).

GWPR co-founder Angela Oakes said ageism was a key contributor to the lack of senior female leaders in the industry: “Ageism is clearly a real problem in the PR industry. We pay lip service to wanting a diverse workforce, but the reality is very different. We also have a major issue around retaining talent and this surely can’t help.

“So how do we try and reverse this trend? Flexible working can help. We think of childcare as a major issue for women in relation to career progression and work life balance, but the other responsibility that comes with age is caring for elderly parents. In addition employers need to change their recruitment policies. Many middle-aged women don’t get beyond stage one of the recruitment process.”

For the fourth edition of the GWPR Annual Index, which tracks and measures the position of women working in the PR and communications industry globally, strategic insight agency Opinium surveyed 437 women in 35 countries on topics including flexible working, the barriers to women reaching the boardroom, the career impact of being a parent and discrimination in the workplace. Two-thirds were at director level and half of the women responding had children. There was an equal split between women working in agency and in-house communications.

The most significant change relating to women in PR that the survey has found over the last four years relates to flexible working. Last year, 92% of PR women were working flexibly and 81% were working remotely, and they anticipate this will not change in the future. In particular, remote working has seen a sharp increase – up 35% – since the pandemic started in 2020. Over the next 12 months, women working in PR say they expect to be working remotely an average of 2.8 days per week.

Employers’ attitudes to flexible working is also changing, with a higher recognition of the positive benefits: two thirds of employers now view it positively, and 71% of women say it allows for caring responsibilities while progressing career.

However, gender equality in the boardroom remains elusive. Despite the industry being two-thirds female, in the boardroom these figures are reversed, and working mothers are still finding it hardest to progress their careers to a senior level in the industry.