LONDON — More than half of women working in PR and communications around the world have faced harassment at work, according to new research from networking organisation Global Women in PR.

The results of GWPR’s 2023 Annual Index, which aims to measure and track progress towards gender equality in PR, found that 53% of women of all levels reported facing harassment in their workplace, the most common forms being psychological, power and personal harassment.

The research seeks to understand the factors that have either impeded or accelerated this progress.  In the five years since the research programme was  launched much has changed in the world but the progress towards gender equality still has a long way to go.

Conducted in partnership with strategic insight agency Opinium, the research covered women working in PR across 35 countries divided equally between agency and in-house plus 10% independent practitioners.

In this year’s survey, a new section on harassment in all its forms was introduced to explore whether this was a concern for women in the industry. The most common forms of harassment faced by women – mostly in mid-level or senior positions – were psychological, power and personal harassment.

Around a third of those who reported the harassment either left or were encouraged to leave their organisations, while no action was taken in the case of another third.

Last year, GWPR included a new section on ageism in the industry, a factor that continues to be prevalent in the industry and one that various studies show impacts more women than men. This year, most those who work in agencies revealed that they do not see themselves staying in the agency beyond 50 years of age, opting to either move in-house, set up their own consultancy or opt out of the workforce.

As many companies continue to grapple with the optimal mix of remote versus in-person working, there was growing recognition amongst women of the benefits of flexible work. The survey found that a better work-life balance, mental wellbeing, retaining female talent and managing caring responsibilities were just some of the positive benefits of flexible working.

However, the positive benefits of flexible working did not necessarily create easy pathways for more women to progress in their careers, particularly those with children and other caring responsibilities. Around half of the women surveyed believe that women with children are still discriminated against in terms of career progression.

Despite the move to flexible working and its perceived benefits, there still are several barriers that women face in their career progression, including the lack of benefits and policies tailored to suit flexible working.

Little has changed in board composition over the five years of the Annual Index, with this year’s survey indicating that a majority of boards continue to remain male dominated or entirely male.

The report found that the biggest barrier to women progressing to board positions is perceived to be childcare or caring responsibilities with 87% highlighting this as a factor. 76% feel the lack of flexible working and family-friendly policies is a barrier while 74% feel women tend to be less proactive about asking for promotions than men.

In-house progression for women on boards is much slower than in agencies and three-fifths of women in PR continue to work in companies where the boardroom is male dominated. This is despite the fact of the growing recognition of the value of gender diverse boards, with over 75% surveyed acknowledging that more women on boards leads to an improvement in working practices in the PR industry, as well as increased creativity and company productivity.

Global Women in PR co-founder and president Sue Hardwick said: “While we are seeing some progress it is clearly not enough and is not fast enough. We hope that by shining a light on the key issues we can find solutions to create a better balance that works for everyone”.

She added: “It was fascinating to learn that Claudia Goldin, a Harvard professor, had won the 2023 Nobel economics prize for her work investigating the gender pay gap. Her conclusion was that caring responsibilities and childcare directly impacted women taking on senior roles due to their requirement for flexibility in the workplace.

“After five years of data from the Global Women in PR Annual Index this does not come as a surprise. Acknowledging the wider economic impact and policy that is needed is a huge step in the right direction. If we don’t address these issues men, women, everyone loses. Equality and equity are good for business as well as society.”