This blog is provided by the IPR Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

“I think sometimes there’s a frustration for women of color… because you feel you are not seen, you are not heard, you can’t speak into issues. You are always just informed of decisions and things that are made without any real thought to you or your experience and what you could add… and I see the experience and the knowledge and the talent just sitting because this glass ceiling for people of color, especially women of color, is definitely very real in our organization.”  — Female, Black, Director of Media & Public Relations

The communication profession has been criticized for lacking racial diversity and inclusion. At the same time, gender inclusion in the industry remains skewed in top leadership. A study published by PRovoke in 2015 addressed that while women make up 70% of the communication workforce in the United States, they only hold about 30% of the top positions in the industry. Such an underrepresentation in top leadership reinforces the persistent pay gap between men and women working in public relations. Research conducted by the Holmes Report and Ketchum Global Research & Analytics in 2017 confirmed the existence of the pay gap around ethnicity in the industry. Specifically, the pay gap grows larger for people of color when compared with white male professionals while holding all other variables constant such as tenure, education, and job role. In particular, the disparity between what white men and women of color earn is the biggest.

According to the most recent labor force statistics released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the racial and ethnic makeup of the public relations industry in the U.S. in 2020 includes 91.0% white, 4.3% African American, 2.3% Asian American, and 7.6% Hispanic or Latino. With less than 10% people of color in the industry, what is the number of women of color sitting on leadership teams? In our recent research on women and leadership in public relations, we faced a similar challenge when recruiting women of color to participate in our studies. Purposeful and strategic efforts must be made to recruit an ethnically diverse sample if the goal is to hear their voices, learn from their experiences, and share their insights before a call to action.

According to the results revealed in our new book, PR Women with Influence: Breaking Through the Ethical and Leadership Challenges, PR women sitting on executive leadership teams define their leadership influence in multiple ways.

The top three defining characteristics include:
1.) Being seen as a trusted advisor (85.7%)
2.) Having career advancement opportunities (84.0%)
3.) Demonstrating expertise (83.0%)

Beyond that, it is important to note that women of color define leadership influence with much stronger expression and opinions. Their appreciation of key defining characteristics comes in a different order, with demonstrating expertise being the most important one, followed by being valued as a trusted advisor, and gaining visibility through senior leadership positions. The various interpretations on leadership influence should be valued, with ample opportunity for personalized career tracking programs and metrics. It is even more interesting to find that different groups of ethnic women in public relations value leadership influence differently. Women in the AAPI and Hispanic communities are leading in defining leadership influence as graphed in the chart below.

Note: the items were measured by using a 7-point Likert scale with “1 = not important at all” and “7 = very important.” We had a sample of 512 full-time female professionals in public relations.

Although diversity management is a hot topic in today’s public relations profession, the inconsistency and uncertainty of practice present constant challenges when implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. If gender and race are two important areas in designing and implementing DEI strategies, the success of effective diversity management shall begin with these two factors and be further enriched by other experiences and perspectives. Women’s capacity for leadership, especially women of color, depends not simply on their intrinsic motivation and developmental goals, but also on extrinsic factors such as the societal and organizational contexts and structures within which leadership identity is defined and leadership opportunities arise.

So how should organizations respond to the DEI challenges they face, with the goal of building a culture of inclusion, especially for women of color and other minorities?

There are some main ways to act:
1.) Defining a clear set of objectives for leadership advancement for talented female professionals at the organizational level.
2.) Designing equal opportunity programs around the objectives and coordinating the content.
3.) Engaging female professionals who have the desire for leadership advancement in leadership development content.
4.) Assigning women with leadership potential to oversee committees or lead short-term projects to develop leadership competencies and cultivate leadership capacity.
5.) Allowing constant feedback and flexibility within leadership development programs for continued engagement and self-reflection.
6.) Making sure to assign clear leadership roles that have genuine leadership participative authority to confirm commitment.
7.) Ensuring that all commitments made concerning the DEI management are consistently kept across the organization.
8.) Establishing women and diversity networks or affinity groups to provide continued mentoring opportunities.

Women of color bring different perspectives to their workplace because of their engagement in different social relations and social causes. In fact, these perspectives provide valuable insights for organizations to evaluate DEI-based policies and programs by finding the blind spots, adding diverse perspectives, and increasing equal opportunities.

Juan Meng, Ph.D., is an associate professor and founding director of Choose China and the Cooperative Education programs at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include public relations leadership and leadership development. Meng serves on the national board of advisors of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and is a member of the Arthur W. Page Society.

Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is an associate professor and graduate program director at Baylor University and teaches courses in advertising and public relations. Her research interests include public relations management and ethics. Neill worked for almost 12 years in government and nonprofit public relations.


Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

Leave a Reply