This column appeared in PRWeek, July 21, 2008, and is reproduced with permission.

Anyone who has spent time lately in college classrooms speaking to students in public relations and communication disciplines has seen first-hand an unmistakable trend. The field is finding it increasingly difficult to attract male students. I have spoken on a half dozen campuses in addition to my own in the last year and the gender ratio I’m seeing is about seventy percent female; some of the classes I taught didn’t have a single male student.

To be certain that what I experienced wasn’t a random anomaly I checked with the Public Relations Student Society of America, the largest membership group for PR students. Their most recent member survey revealed that 89 percent of current members are female, based on over 1,100 responses out of their 9,600 members at 284 academic institutions.

It’s hard to identify with certainty the reasons behind this trend. I have asked younger colleagues their opinions and generally they feel it has to do with the perceived monetary reward-or lack of same-that certain professions promise. As one of them (a male) put it, “There’s a widespread perception, with some hint of reality, that entry-level positions at many PR agencies are low paying, regardless of gender. I think this is a turn-off for young men just leaving school. Male college grads come out of the chute very competitive and they often equate ‘best’ with most financially rewarding.”

I have personally mentored some outstanding young women in my role at the College of Charleston and I’m delighted that we are successfully attracting these new leaders to our profession. Yet I feel the gender imbalance we are now seeing is a troubling one, just as troubling as it would be if the student populations were dominated by males.

Why? For the same reasons that virtually any gender imbalance raises issues. More than in some other professions, ours should look like the society it serves. We work in a relationship based profession, both by definition and practice. We serve audiences that reflect a wide range of diverse attributes, including gender. To best serve them we need to best understand them and it helps if we share their demographic qualities…age, ethnicity, education and gender.

We need to reach out in creative new ways to bright promising young men on our college campuses and remind them of the many attributes of a career in the communications profession. We’re clearly not having trouble getting this message across to young women, and if we can attract the best students of both genders our profession will be better equipped to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

Tom Martin
Executive-in-Residence, Department of Communication, The College of Charleston
Trustee, Institute for Public Relations

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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15 thoughts on “Tom Martin: A Few Good Men

  1. Would somebody, somewhere, sometime please, please develop and implement a nationwide campaign educating small business people and employees on the true definition of Public Relations? I have been wanting this for 30 years. I am still waiting. I would even be wiling to help.

  2. Alex,

    I’m a recent graduate from the University of Florida where I studied public relations. It’s true there were only a handful of males in my classes, but you shouldn’t let that worry you! The guys I know are just in love with the career path they’ve chosen as I am! You can’t let the fact that you’re a male interfere with what you want to do in life. Besides, it might actually work to your advantage when finding a job, assuming companies like to hire an even balance of males and females.

    Bill Huey,

    I’m afraid I disagree with your statement that PR is about persuasion and not about relationships. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to persuade is a very important part of PR, but you won’t be able to persuade someone if you don’t earn their trust – and trust is earned by building relationships.

    There is a rather entertaining YouTube video of a marriage counselor named Mark Gungor explaining the difference between the way men and women think. It obviously isn’t specific to PR, but it highlights the fact that men and women think differently.

    He basically describes a man’s brain as being made of little boxes that don’t touch – each box housing a different subject. For women, he says it’s more like a big ball of wire driven by emotion, with everything connected to everything. He then mentions a study that proves men can sit and just breathe without thinking about anything while women can’t. Our female minds never stop racing.

    This doesn’t mean we’re better at “relationships” per se, but I feel it explains how women and men are typically drawn to different fields of study because of the way we’re wired. I feel like a lot of PR is about connecting the little bits to form one big picture, so it makes sense to me that a woman are more likely to choose PR as their profession. Also, incorporating emotion into messages is a helpful tool in building relationships, and I think women are naturally more at ease with expressing emotion – at least in western civilization.

    I think PR could learn a lot by studying psychology. Here is the link to the video:

  3. As a future male Public Relations student I find the statistics and the gender imbalance highly worrying. It’s so frustrating that it is certainly making me think twice about going to university to study Public Relations.

  4. I’m actually excited as the PR Concentration Lead at Delaware State University because the number of male students in the concentration has increased this semester.  My goal is to get them more involved in the students organizations (PRSSA, Mass Comm Society and other professional organizations) and place them in leadership roles so that they begin to see the impact they can have in the field.  Many of our male PR students want to work in either sports or entertainment and while it may be difficult to break into those arenas I believe that it’s important to nurture the souls of these budding male publicists.

    Dr. Fran Edwards

    Delaware State University

  5. I’m a lecturer at an Australian university where my postgrad PR classes comprise one male and the rest females.  I’ve just moved here from the UK where the classes at postgrad level were around 85% female, although masters courses in marketing communications were more equally balanced.  PR postgraduates I teach are all working in industry, mostly in PR/comms, reflecting to some extent the composition of the profession which research suggests is increasingly becoming ‘feminised’.  There are many reasons for this, one of them being that the role of PR is one that can be done flexibly, i.e. enabling women to work from home, or at times to suit family life, or as freelancers.  Also, because of the greater numbers of women in the industry, it becomes an increasingly attractive field for women entrepreneurs who are disadvantaged by or disillusioned with the cultures of large corporations.  Interesting to see this trend mirrored around the world.

  6. Not only is PR one of the most gender-imbalanced of the professional services fields, but a pseudo-scientific rationale has been developed to explain it: women are better at “relationships.”

    If you believe that, then you belong in events management, where your relationship skills will actually be useful. Just don’t call it PR, because public relations is, always has been, and always will be about persuasion–getting people to believe or do something because they are convinced it is beneficial, not because they have a relationship with someone.

  7. Comment:

    I am a lecturer in PR at the University of Dar es Salaam. Actually we don’t have the problem of having more female students than male. The existing ratio now is almost 50/50. We are gender sensitized. This have been possible through University gender mainstreaming progamme which started the year 2001. But Engineering and science programs, there are more male students than female ones.

  8. I am a lecturer in PR at a Spanish university. In my courses it used to happen the same. Since the last four or five years we are observing an increasing number of female students in the classrooms.It use to be a proportion 60/40 or 70/30 (women/men).

    But I think this is not a “problem” of the PR area, it alredy happens in other communication studies, as well as in other socials sciences studies -economics, law…- Generally speaking, I am not sure if this is a trend that could not benefit the practice…

    I do not think this is because of monetary issues. This may be because of the increasing presence of females in undergraduate and graduate studies, in comparison with the previous decades.

    My point is that the equilibrium is desirable in all professions. May be we have to think why males tend not to prefer our profession. I am not sure that the reason behind is an economic one…

  9. Another pertinent question that is indirectly related to what Toby Foxcroft raises above is the entry requirements for students to get into these “PR Courses.” Are they as demanding as for example medicine or architecture.

    A disturbing trend is the private colleges both i the devloped and devoling world that offer sham PR and Communications programs just because half-baked rejects who couldn’t into tougher disciplines are willing to pay top dollar in tuition fees to be able to say “I’m majoring in PR & Communications.” Their only qualification is that their rich dads can afford the tuition fees. These so called parallell programs are a source of lucrative income for reputable universities in developing countries.

  10. Just a thought . . . The field is changing–moving away from one-or-few shot features (like a special event or a speech or a publication, etc) and moving toward the fostering of extended relationships between clients and their publics. I don’t know if there is much data out there to support a hunch of mine:  Women are hard-wired to be better at maintaining relationships than men are. I’m thinking here of traditional roles of nurturing, etc. I don’t think my hunch is sexist, either–just a fact of biology.  I expect practitioners who read this notion to cringe initially, but I’d ask them to look at sex differences in how little boys and girls play, how men and women use their phones for different reasons and for vastly different durations of phone interactions.  Maybe read an old classic like the book by C. Heilbrun, IN A DIFFERENT VOICE, and see that there are real differences in sensing, thinking, and feeling between men and women.  Women just seem better at the skills required by the changing demands of public relations, now often termed “relationship management.” In the Boston area, women hold many leadership positions in the field, and the percentage of women/top executives is growing.

  11. This is not just an issue with the PR field, it is an issue that all colleges are dealing with across the board.  Many colleges and universities (like my own) are seeing 70/30 splits in their enrollments, women to men.  Some research shows that it is not necessarily that fewer men are entering college, it is just that so many more women are entering college than ever before.  College presidents are making a concerted effort to recruit more male students.

    It may also be the case that men and women just gravitate to different fields because of our cultural training.  Even within large PR agencies, you’ll see more men gravitate to the technology and corporate groups, while more women gravitate to the consumer and food/nutrition groups.

    I do not believe our industry has been dumbed down.  If anything, it has become more research and business based.  And yes, we do have a “PR” problem when it comes to public understanding of our profession.

  12. When is the last time you’ve seen an ad calling for a male to apply, its depressing, there are so few. I’m not surprised.

  13. I was browsing and came across your article – very interesting: but not surprising!

    I don’t work in your industry directly but what permits me to advise you is that I am renowned in the world of leadership and deal therefore a great deal with business leaders across the globe.

    ….and so down to business:

    1.  As is common human behaviour, ‘the house of the window cleaner often has dirty windows’.

    “I’m in PR” she says as I am introduced to the group and shake her hand.

    This seems to be the opening line for every pretty woman in every capital city. Dig deeper and you usually find they are either in events management or stand at the door welcoming guests or generally don’t know what to do and so they figure PR is glamourous enough for them.

    My point being by the way, congratulations PR industry you have got so successful you have now ‘dumbed down’ your brand significantly enough to put bright young men off the trail.

    2.  The general public don’t understand the real ‘call for duty’ and the serious elements of PR. In fact, in a poll in London recently it was found that most people thought PR is all about telling lies, make the lies palatable and/or to time the news correctly so that the lies go un-noticed.

    3.  PR need to PR their PR better

    4.  While extrinsic rewards (eg. salary) are important, we know that it is short lived in terms of motivation and of less importance when choosing a profession; the theory of ‘less money attracts mainly women’ is inaccurate and don’t go down that line in terms of realigning the misaligned!

    5.  Concentrate your efforts around the motivational elements that entice people to great jobs. The intrinsic elements are of real importance if you are truly looking to make change; ‘culture’ has to figure as the key element to your change process and that means it has to be legitimate, sustainable, believable and motivational to your target audience. It will also need to be supported by PR big businesses;

    Food for thought:  Is it cheaper to hire a woman than to hire a man across the globe?

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