This year’s theme for International’s Women Day is #BalanceforBetter, calling for gender-balanced board rooms, governments and media coverage. For the PR industry, the lack of balance has been particularly egregious considering the overall makeup of its workforce.  It’s been four years since we spotlighted the industry’s stark gender bifurcation: women make up about 70% of the PR workforce, yet they only hold about 30% of the top positions in the industry.

The good news is, when it comes to balancing this ratio, the PR industry is making notable progress. In 2015, none of the top five agencies were women-led — in fact, at the time, the #9-ranked Brunswick was the largest firm with a woman as global CEO. Today, two of the top five PR firms — #3 BCW and #5 Ketchum — have women in their global CEO roles. All of the top five have women in regional leadership roles.

In 2015, the Holmes Report also reported on the dismal state of parental leave within the US PR industry, with many firms expecting new parents to rely on short-term disability and PTO to cobble together their leave. Since 2016, several firms — Finsbury, W2O Group, M Booth, Golin and Weber Shandwick, among them — revamped their parental leave policies to reflect, not only more time-off, but also a more balanced view across genders around caregiving. 

These are encouraging steps, but it’s important to note, balance hasn’t yet been fully achieved. And, the emergence of the #MeToo movement has brought to light cultures of toxic masculinity and women, in particular women of color, continue to earn less than their male counterparts.

So, we asked some of the industry’s most vocal advocates for gender equality for their view: what should we be celebrating this International Women’s Day, what should we still be fighting for — and what can men do to help? Their answers are below.

“One of the things I think is most interesting in terms of progression is that we have a lot of female founders in our industry and now we are seeing more ‘appointed’ female CEOs. CEOs who are making a real difference in an ever evolving industry and business landscape that needs diverse perspective — and will thrive because of it.” - Diana Littman, US CEO at MSLGroup

“There is no question that progress has been made and ironically, I think the election in 2016 and #metoo in the fall of 2017 helped to propel greater change than the years prior to those seismic events.  First, because women in all industries, including PR, banded together and there is strength in numbers. Second because women began channeling their anger into actions to propel women forward from TimesUp to Free The Bid to Have Her Back.  And third, because men are recognizing that this is no longer a woman’s issue, but this is something we have to come together to solve.

There are still obstacles - but our current leaders championing women into leadership roles is the most needed.  I actually believe there has never been a better time for women to ascend into leadership positions in PR, because both on the client and agency side, there is a mandate that we must do better to ensure gender equality - and we now have business results that support that having a balanced leadership team equals better business.  And in PR (unlike industries like tech), we have an incredible wealth of talented women that are poised and ready.

(How can men help?) Show up for them by championing them for the big opportunities. Be vocal when you see biased behavior take place as people learn from you in those moments. Make time to participate at the leadership events talking about gender equality.  And stop saying you are doing this because you have daughters - instead take actions to promote women into leadership roles because they’ve more than earned it and the business will be better for it. That’s how men #haveherback.” — Caroline Dettman, Chief Creative Officer at Golin

“You can't be it, if you can't see it. The good news is that over the last five years we have seen more women take on global leadership roles at some of our industry's biggest firms.

We all need to "mind the gap" - the confidence gap for women is real.  Discussions and debates need to be inclusive - so all voices are heard. And let's not forget that a better balance in the home is critical, so as to give women the flexibility to take on leadership responsibilities.

Men need to be the champions of change. They have to remove any unconscious bias and sponsor more women into leadership roles.” — Michelle Hutton, MD of Global Client Strategy at Edelman

“There are still little to no consequences for men behaving badly inside agencies and holding companies. Until that changes, women will be hard pressed to advance their careers without the risk of sexual harassment, assault and retaliation. A third party body or membership organization inside the PR industry has an opportunity to establish and enforce standards as to how complaints should be investigated, including but not limited to a ban on NDAs and forced arbitration. Until this happens, many more stories, which should be shedding light on the bad behavior of individuals and the firms that propped them up, will go untold, continuing an unnecessary cycle of silence. Until women feel safe advancing their careers inside firms of all sizes, we will never achieve gender balance at the highest ranks of PR leadership.

(How can men help?) Learn what it means to be a real ally through self-education. It starts by using your position of power to support us. Amplify our voices when they go unheard. Share your salary history and demand agencies close the pay gap and create transparent salary bands. Fight for a fairer, more diverse and inclusive workplace with flexible work arrangements. All men at all levels of an organization can do these things, not just senior management.” — Leslie Campisi, CMO at the Anthemis Group

“Women in PR should take time today (International Women’s Day) to applaud our incredible contributions and achievements to the industry. After all, we occupy more C-suites and run agencies now than ever before. Entrepreneurs too are on fire; a lot of that growth can be credited to women solving for work-life integration and having to first build the table to take a seat around. And, from a pure headcount perspective, we dominate; from university to mid-level it’s female brain power, passion and old-fashioned sweat equity that’s shaping business and culture through communications. BUT upper-management and holding company leadership is still overwhelmingly male and the gender pay inequity is shameful. We’ve got the know-how and numbers; how do we use that to further elevate? ‘We’ve come a long way baby’ but we still have some road to travel.” — Cheryl Overton, President at Egami Group

“Some progress has been made, but not enough. The PR industry is dominated by women, but management roles are still dominated by men. And on top of that, PR has a diversity problem and if we’re going to solve it for all under-represented groups, we cannot separate the efforts around these issues. They need to be inclusive.

In addition to the persistent fact that only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, too many workplaces view women’s assets as liabilities. Without being explicit, it is communicated to women that we have to essentially become more male if we want to lead. We should speak up, be less emotional and more assertive. There are no professional training classes for men on becoming more empathetic, or how to listen first and speak second.

(How can men help?) a meaningful way. It’s human nature to look for mentees who look just like us, but this perpetuates inequalities. If every man in power decided not only to mentor, but to pass real opportunities to capable women and people of color, we’d make better progress on closing those equality gaps. And you have to commit for it to work. InkHouse, for example, has made it a company policy to only participate in speaking engagements that feature diverse panels.” — Beth Andrix Monaghan, CEO at InkHouse

"I get angrier now than I did 20 years ago at how little progress we have made relative to where we should be.  If you had asked me in 1999, where I thought we would be in twenty years, I would have told you that the question would be obsolete.  So every decent PR leader should continue to get angry, and help champion progress so that my daughter, my nieces and every young woman coming into our industry won’t be answering this question in twenty years’ time!

What obstacles do women in PR still face, in particular in achieving leadership positions? Unconscious bias, lack of equal pay and lack of equal opportunity. In some cases no opportunity! Women have the skills to get to the top but there are still too few women leading this industry, either running functions or agencies. We need to overcome these three obstacles, and also create and build the right support structures within organizations for women to succeed.  Although I don’t think any one – men or women – feel that they can have it all, it is hard when you can’t even get part of it!

If you are a man (or woman!) in a leadership position, cultivate a level playing field, champion and implement equal pay and equal opportunity, push diversity, and encourage talent.  Realize that not all woman are the same, with the same skills or issues.  Just as not every man leads the same way, neither do all women." — Emma Smith, Asia-Pacific CEO, MHP Communications

“On one hand the gender pay gap is closing and female inclusion at C Suite and board level has increased, but it’s still not equal, and it’s taking time. Just last year the #metoo movement shone a light on all industries, so hopefully progress will be quicker as we move forward.

Looking at the various expertise areas in our business, the creative side of the house is drastically underrepresented. Our very own Caroline Dettman, CCO, is the founder of #haveherback, an initiative to welcome female creatives back to the workplace and progress their careers. 

It’s through creating initiatives and opportunities such as this that support women at various life stages, that will ensure companies retain the brightest of talent.

As a new mother of twins, I would say balancing it all is a challenge. I can’t speak for all women in PR of course, but for me having flexibility in working is key to my success in juggling my family and my job. I am lucky enough to work for a company that understands, listens and allows me to work in my own way, which means they get the best from me.

I would say women question their worth more than men do. I rarely come across a man at leadership level who isn’t incredibly confident yet many brilliant women suffer from imposter syndrome or quite simply doubt their own value and capability which I find insane! We shouldn’t be afraid of promoting ourselves and speaking up.

(How can men help?) Don’t just say it, do it. It’s not about giving lofty speeches centred on supporting women, and it’s not just about creating policies either, it’s about the organisation living and breathing its commitments. Give support, opportunities, listen, and have our back, just like we should with all colleagues.” — Jane Morgan, Managing Director, Hong Kong at Golin.

“Since joining the PR agency world in the early 1990s, I’ve noted tangible progress in the advancement of women leadership in the communications industry. We see more senior female leaders in high-ranking positions at large agencies now. That is a welcome addition to the more established trend of executive women at small and mid-sized firms (which was my own path to C-suite leadership, as well as agency ownership).

Clearly there is much more work still to be done here. But it is not as ‘surprising’ to see women reach that level as it was 25 years ago. Let’s keep the pressure on!

We have made far less progress in advancing women of color and other diverse backgrounds to the most senior leadership positions. They are often moved to start their own firms or join smaller agencies, in order to take on the role of CEO, COO, etc. Fostering greater diversity and true equity in the senior ranks of our agencies is vital to the continued evolution and success of this industry. And this is certainly a priority for me, as I consider the future of my own firm.

Closely related to this, is the ongoing challenge of intersectionality. As in, how can we better allow people to bring their whole selves to work – and to their role as senior leaders? Someone is rarely just “a woman leader” (also problematic at a time when we are recognizing that gender is not necessarily so simple or binary). There are other lens of race, ethnicity, geography, economics and more at play. That should be our collective strength. Yet when we try to put people in simplistic boxes – and ignore the power of their lived experiences and perspectives – we all lose. To me, this is what real inclusion, equity and belonging is all about. I hope that this is our next frontier as an industry looking to have the best, brightest and most vibrant cohort of leaders. ” — Anne Green, Principal & Managing Director, G&S Business Communications

"Women in this generation are putting their careers first, and are starting to play more active roles in the business. There is a dynamic rise of women in the ranks and I am especially proud to see more locally-grown female leaders in Asia.  We see more agencies focused on building a gender-inclusive environment to bring together both women and men to share their experiences, learn from each other and succeed in their careers.

In terms of what may be harder to change over the short to mid term is related to what women face in maintaining a work-life balance especially when they start a family. I find this balance to be even harder in Asia as there is a lingering, traditional mindset about the role of a mother and wife across countries.

With what should change now, we still see leadership dominated by men. We need more balance as we still lag behind when you consider the percentage of women in the industry as a whole.

We need more men to think equally of women and men for roles/ opportunities and to be willing to take risks in this regard. My previous supervisors extended fantastic opportunities to me and ones that were new and challenging. I didn't have the experience or track record but I did have the vote of confidence to try. We need more of that approach happening across the agency world." — Margaret Key, Asia-Pacific CEO, Zeno Group

Additional reporting by Diana Marszalek and Arun Sudhaman.