LONDON — Flexible working is flourishing, but progress towards gender equality in the boardroom is slowing, according to a new study from Global Women in PR.

The organisation’s third Annual Index, in partnership with Opinium, showed that 2021 was a challenging year for women working in PR and communications. While the pandemic has dramatically changed the way we work, the survey results show very little has changed in moving towards a more balanced board room and increasing the number of female leaders: 66% of senior leaders in the industry are men, up from 64% last year, in an industry that is two-thirds female.

In addition, one in seven (13%) state their board is made up entirely of men, and the number of PR professionals who say that their board is made up of mostly or all women remains at 9%, having dropped from 14% in 2019.

The survey of 430 women around the world from July to September 2021 covered working environments, the pressures of working in PR, the barriers to women taking on leadership roles, the impact of being a parent, the gender pay gap and sexual harassment in the workplace.

As well as highlighting the imbalance of men and women in senior roles, researchers asked what was needed to change the situation, and the drivers that could help more women working in PR and communications take on senior roles.

Remote working was felt to be the most important initiative by 57% of PR professionals – ahead of financial reward – and 73% also say they would be more likely to choose a job that offered flexible working over one that did not (up from 69% in 2020).

The research also revealed that 91% of PR professionals are currently working flexibly and most believe that post-pandemic hybrid working will continue. On average respondents believe they will be working remotely three days a week over the next 12 months and 21% think they will be working remotely full time.

Flexible working practices are considered the best initiative to enable more women to take on board room roles (67%). This has reclaimed the top spot from 2019 having overtaken ‘having more senior female role models’ (65%). Other initiatives identified to help women’s career progression are mentoring schemes (62%), more senior recognition of the issues around gender inequality (60%) and training opportunities (56%).

Despite the continued increase in flexible working opportunities and their appeal, there is still work to be done to ensure flexible working doesn’t have a negative impact on career progression. When asked how flexible working impacts the careers of PR professionals, almost three in ten (28%) believe they progress more slowly, having slightly increased from 25% last year. Those working agency side are more likely to believe flexible working impedes career progression than those working in-house (31% vs 23%). This was also felt more strongly by PR professionals working in the UK (47%).

On the other hand, encouragingly, there’s an increase in the number of PR professionals who report that flexible working is perceived positively within their company. Over three fifths (63%) report a positive perception compared to 54% last year. Interestingly, those working agency-side are more likely to report a positive perception (68%) compared to in-house (54%).

Flexible working is also felt to be particularly beneficial for women. Two-thirds (67%) believe flexible working allows women to have a family or take on caring responsibilities and still progress in their careers. A similar proportion (63%) agree that it helps retain female talent. Three in ten (30%) feel it helps women to progress into boardroom positions. A quarter (25%) of PR professionals would even prefer flexible working opportunities over a pay rise, increasing to 36% in Germany.

Looking at the potential barriers women face when it comes to progressing into senior positions, it is not surprising that the biggest barrier continues to be childcare or caring responsibilities. Three-quarters of respondents felt that a lack of flexible working and family-friendly policies prevented women from progressing into senior positions. A similar number believed the lack of work-life balance in a senior role was a barrier.

Almost two-thirds (65%) of all respondents said they have had to undertake caring responsibilities during their career whilst working – an increase of 7% year-on-year. Most commonly, these caring responsibilities have been carried out alone (37%), or equally shared between themselves and a partner (33%). Childcare responsibility is only expected to increase post-pandemic with a quarter (27%) of mothers working in PR saying they will be taking on more childcare responsibility.

Two fifths (41%) of women reported that these caring responsibilities have had a negative impact on their career, although this has decreased compared to 47% in 2020.

When asked how their child caring responsibilities have had a negative impact on their career, 43% of women said they had to take a period of leave from work. These caring responsibilities have also impacted women’s relationships with their team: 40% said they couldn’t attend social team building events, and 26% said they felt excluded from their team more generally.

In 2020, a fifth (20%) of parents surveyed said their company does not offer paid parental leave following the birth of a child but in 2021 this dropped to 13%. However, there still seems to be a disparity based on the gender of new parents: 71% say their company offers paid parental leave for mothers, while 40% say this is offered to fathers.

Last year the GWPR Annual Index found PR professionals working in-house were more likely to have taken time off work because of stress, compared to their agency counterparts. This year, that gap has closed completely, yet a third of both in-house and agency-side professionals say they have had to take time off for their mental health.

For many women working from home during the pandemic has meant having to juggle child care responsibilities, domestic duties and a busy workload. Not surprisingly many women have experienced burn out and only around half of PR professionals currently claim to have a good work-life balance. Worryingly, over a third of respondents are not offered any mental health support initiatives by their organisations.

When it comes to comparing the career progression of mothers and fathers, the gender difference continues to be stark. Half (51%) of PR professionals feel mothers are promoted more slowly, compared to just 4% of fathers, and 33% say there is a gender pay gap in favour of men at a senior level in their business – up from 27% in 2020.

A third (33%) now say there is a gender pay gap in favour of men at a senior level, and over a quarter (28%) at middle management level. These have both increased from 27% and 22% last year.

The gender pay gap appears to be bigger among in-house PR professionals: 42% of in-house respondents state that men earn more in senior management positions than women, compared to 24% in agencies.

Women working in PR agencies also appear to have a smoother career path than their counterparts working in-house: they are twice as likely to be promoted faster and twice as likely to reach a boardroom position.

Over four-fifths of PR professionals believe that having women in the boardroom helps improve both the productivity and the creativity of the company. These figures have both increased since the start of the research three years ago. When it comes to working practices, 82% believe that having women in the boardroom can help improve company working practices, with 81% believing that having women on boards clears barriers to promotion for other women.

Many (67%) believe there is also a lack of transparency around recruitment and promotion, which creates a barrier for women attaining more senior roles, and the same number believe women are less proactive than men when it comes to asking for promotion.

GWPR joint president and co-founder Angela Oakes said: “With the changes to more flexible working practices being brought about by Covid and a real recognition by businesses that women, and a truly diverse workforce, really do make a difference to the profitability of a company, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We hope that our 2022 Annual Index will show that the dial has moved to a better place for all of us in our industry, which still remains two-thirds female.”