Elizabeth Toth, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, has devoted 18 years to the study of the increasing number of women in public relations.
In the mid-seventies more than 70 percent of the public relations field was male. Today that ratio has reversed itself, with conservative estimates saying 60 percent of the field is female. Elizabeth Toth thinks the number is much higher, "especially if you look in our classrooms, where 80 percent of those studying public relations are women."|
While the gender switch isn't unique to public relations, the change is more dramatic than in other occupations, says Toth, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She's trying to find out why and determine how the switch has affected the field.
Toth has studied the increasing number of women in public relations since she began teaching 18 years ago. She worked in the field for seven years, serving as an administrative officer for the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, and an information and communications specialist for North Carolina's Department of Natural Resources. "When I started teaching, my classes were 50/50 male/female, and then they started to change dramatically," she says. "The textbooks and literature never seemed to reflect this demographic change, which I thought didn't serve our students well. I was interested in how the change would impact public relations and how we should educate young women to prepare for an industry in transition."
Toth sees several reasons why public relations became more attractive to women. "One is that the men left," she says with a smile. "They had many more fields to choose from and public relations was not as lucrative, so they went where the money was." Also, public relations doesn't put up the barriers to women found in many occupations, she says. "It's a very flexible field in which women can balance family and marriage. Organizations seem to prefer women in public relations roles because they think they are better communicators, more nurturing and willing to listen and collaborate. I think organizations began to face pressure from affirmative action programs to hire women and train them for management positions, and public relations seemed like a safe place to put women managers. There's a lot of good news in that, but organizational sociologists say it's another way of oppressing women. You offer them a little bit and then they won't want more."
Toth has written a number of books and articles on the subject, including co-authoring the 1986 book The Velvet Ghetto: The Increasing Percentage of Women in Public Relations and Business Communication.The Institute of Public Relations Research and Education recently recognized her work with the Pathfinder Award, its most prestigious honor.
She and other researchers have done three major audits of members of the Public Relations Society of America and the National Association of Business Communicators. These professional organizations observed the gender change in their membership and wanted to assess the impact on the field, Toth says. "I've participated in those studies and published the results as a way of charting these changes, seeing how they are similar to or different from occupational changes in general."
Toth is also trying to determine whether the transition has affected public relations. "There are theories that when women become dominant in a field, the field loses status and value," she says. "One of the strategies organizations seem to use is paying women less across the board. Women still seem to make less money on average, but also on the basis of age and type of organization. Some argue that women will catch up when they have the same amount of experience as men, but many women don't get that on-the-job experience. They're more likely to be pigeonholed into technical jobs."
Twenty years ago, Toth says, women thought they were successful if they got a foot in the door, no matter how poorly they were paid. "Getting a foot in the door is now a given for women," she says. "But today they have much higher expectations."