On International Women’s Day in March , my organisation, the New Local Government Network, was joined by 15 chief executives from local authorities and almost 200 future leaders for an afternoon of leadership discussion and networking. It was brilliant and inspiring to see so many women from around the country together – but why is there still the need to do this?
The public sector is, unsurprisingly, still overwhelmingly female – but the majority of the top positions are still dominated by men. In local government, more than 78 per cent of council employees are women, but make up less than a third of chief executive positions. There is clearly still a lot to be done. So why don’t women put themselves forward?
The lack of women in the public eye is part of this. Current affairs programmes still have a ratio of almost three men to every woman featured as experts, and reporters and presenters have two men for every woman. If the images we see of those commenting on current affairs, and those labelled as experts, are either derogatory to women or predominately male, that affects how as women we see ourselves in the context of being an expert. Furthermore, traditional media is at times grotesque in its treatment of women – the Daily Mail is frequently criticised for its coverage of female politicians; the Sun refers to Amal Clooney as showing ‘off her blossoming baby bump’ rather than the speech she gave at the UN; and The Times covered a meeting between the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland with the headline ‘Can Theresa bring Nicola to heel?’
So what role can we as public relations professionals take in this? As a profession where creating trust is a fundamental part of the role, we are therefore exceptionally well placed to take a leading role in promoting diversity, and there is a lot that we can do.
There is an often used saying that men will put themselves forward for things which they are 50 per cent qualified for, and women won’t put themselves forward unless they are certain that they are completely qualified – and this also applies to broadcast interviews.
There is a great responsibility on us to provide that training, advice and support to ensure that women do put themselves forward, perform well, and start to balance out this overwhelming imbalance of commentary. Where possible, we should push for female rather than male spokespeople for broadcast interviews, but also make the same effort for print.
There is also a growing movement for both men and women to refuse to speak on panels that are not gender balanced, and where we can use that close relationship with leadership teams, we should encourage our chief executives to do the same.
We should ensure that where possible, quotes in press releases are from women, and pitch more women for profile interviews – as experts in their own right, rather than as someone who has reached an unusually senior level for a woman. We have to present our female experts as the norm for it to become the norm.
Changing how we perceive the role of women in public life is a change that needs to be driven from everyone – but as communications professionals we are in an unusual position of being able to directly influence a much wider group of people that the average person in an organisation.