Public Relations Field: ‘Velvet Ghetto’


When women break into a professional field and succeed, it is generally conceded that a blow against discrimination has been struck. But, let too many women break into that field and the most damaging kind of discrimination emerges: the kind of discrimination that relegates an entire profession to “female work” with an accompanying industry-wide downward trend in wages and status.

According to a new report released recently by the International Assn. of Business Communicators, the field of public relations and business communications is in danger of going the way of teaching, nursing and library science--fields with lower pay and prestige than professions with comparable skills and education simply because the jobs are held predominantly by women.

Forecasts indicate that women will soon represent 80% of public relations specialists, the report said, and one of the authors, Elizabeth Toth of Southern Methodist University, fears the profession is “digging itself into a velvet ghetto.”


Toth is chairman of the public relations sequence at the Center for Communication Arts in SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. She teamed with five colleagues from other universities in Texas and Oklahoma to study her profession as an example of a field in transition.

The number of women in public relations is “wildly out of proportion” to their numbers in the general work force, Toth said. Salaries are dropping. Men are leaving the field for better jobs. “And even after all other factors, such as education and experience are accounted for,” Toth said, “the effects of gender on salary and advancement are indisputable.”

The woman in public relations and business communications today makes from $6,000 to $30,000 a year less than the men who preceded her, the report said, and she is increasingly likely to hold a job classified as technician rather than manager. Furthermore, since the field has taken on a feminine look, it appears that corporations have become less likely to look at their public relations departments as a source of people on the track toward senior-level jobs. The report even suggests that companies, in the name of affirmative action, load their public relations divisions with women to compensate for putting few women in other, more influential jobs.

That the sex of the workers can dramatically change the pay and prestige of a profession--or vice versa--has been demonstrated in other fields. One example, the reverse of the public relations situation, is school administration, a field that that was poorly paid with most school principals’ jobs held by women until the early 1950s. Then pay and prestige in the field began to rise. What had been “women’s work” became well-paid executive work. By the late ‘70s, women were so excluded from the field they were resorting to discrimination suits and affirmative action to get jobs in this “male” sector as school principals and superintendents.

Toth and her team interviewed senior-level professionals in communications and public relations, evaluated surveys of students and studied focus groups of practitioners in a number of U.S. and Canadian cities and compared the results to data gathered by the International Assn. of Business Communicators in 1981, 1983 and 1985. The result was a clear pattern of feminization in the field and a corresponding decrease in salaries and titles.

“Ironically,” Toth said in the university’s report on the study, “women have flocked to the public relations field because it is receptive to them. But once they get there, many are neither equipped nor conditioned to compete for high-level jobs, so they settle for less. The result, over time, has been a softening of the whole profession.”


Women themselves are responsible for a part of this softening, the report said. Women are more likely than men to accept downgraded positions and less money, partly for lack of skills in negotiating salary and position, partly because of the tendency of women to undervalue themselves professionally.

Women in this field also experience the conflict between work and family life, perhaps especially because people attracted to public relations work, Toth said, tend to make other people’s priorities more important than their own.

Toth and the research team saw the study as an opportunity to examine a profession in the process of a gender switch and find remedies for the slide toward the “velvet ghetto.”

Among the suggested solutions are that women become aware of what men earn so they can negotiate with a firmer concept of their worth. The report also recommended that professional public relations organizations establish formal mentoring programs to expose women to management skills and that college public relations programs be enriched to draw more top students to the field.

Toth said that improving the status of the profession will take major effort. Besides public education, “ . . . we must also put our own house in order--raise the consciousness of both men and women in the profession about the gender issue and its effects.” There has been resistance to the findings of the study, she said, with some practitioners not believing that there is a problem in the influx of women. Some deny the salary variance or say that things are getting better. The report says that this is not so.

Toth does not see a positive outcome for an industry that becomes sex-segregated, particularly female-dominated. “While women’s professions do have a meaningful role to play in society, they cannot achieve the kind of power essential to professional and personal effectiveness as can related professions with male majorities,” she said. “Furthermore, there’s a serious economic impact. Some researchers say that it is sex segregation, not sex discrimination (pay inequity) that accounts for the bulk of the male-female earnings differential throughout the job market.”