The Glass Ceiling in Public Relations (PR)

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Public Relations’ Glass Ceiling By



This study defines the glass ceiling, examines its presence within the public relations industry and explores gender discrepancies in the industry. A survey was conducted among public relations students and public relations practitioners regarding their perceptions of the glass ceiling in public relations. The results of the study are congruent with those found in past research in terms of gender perception, but differ in terms of the glass ceiling’s impact on the public relations industry. In the future,

qualitative studies of how (ethnic) minority female practitioners are affected by the glass ceiling can be conducted to broaden the body of research.



In 2002 women made up 70% of public relations practitioners. In the same year, PR Week reported that female practitioners made approximately 38% less than their male counterparts. A study in the early nineties shows that over 80% of public relations

students are women (Toth & Grunig, 1993). With the vast majority of new public relations practitioners being female and the threat of the feminization of the public relations industry, understanding how the glass ceiling affects female practitioners is crucial to maintaining the credibility and viability of the industry. Since the early eighties, when women began appearing in droves in the corporate workforce, there have been numerous accounts of gender based inequities.

Fourteen years have passed since Hymowitz and Schellhardt (1986) first reported on the glass ceiling, that invisible barrier faced by middle-management women who want to attain top-level positions. Although 41.4% of the 2001 United States workforce is comprised of women (U.S Bureau Of Labor Statistics, 2001), few women have ascended to the top management level and pay gaps between women and men still exist (Ragins & Sundstrom, 1989; Tsui, 1998) as cited by Choi and Hon (2002, p. 230)

These statistics have had significant effects on the public relations industry, an industry that is predominantly female at the tactical level but overwhelmingly male at the C-level and upper management levels. For women planning to enter the public relations industry, how they perceive the glass ceiling, their knowledge of its prevalence within the


industry and they way in which they navigate professionally among male bosses and leadership may all impact their potential for success and advancement within the field.

Observing the glass ceiling in public relations helps gain insight into how gender role socialization affects the corporate structure and female employees. The public

relations industry consists of 2 main job functions: tacticians and management. Typically, public relations managers have a larger income potential than tacticians. Studies show that the glass ceiling forces women to remain at the tactical level, thereby limiting the influence they have on their companies (Dozier & Broom, 1995). Studies show that women in public relations encounter gender based inequalities as a result of gender roles socialization (Aldoory & Toth, 2002). Men are socialized to be more competitive than women and to negotiate aggressively. Women however, are taught not to be too pushy or assertive particularly when dealing with men. The assumption that women are helpers, sensitive and nurturers, affects how men view their ability to manage (Wrigley, 2002).

Continued study of the glass ceiling helps to gain insight into other phenomenon within the field. For example, since the first studies of public relations’ glass ceiling the industry has experienced significant growth in female public relations practitioners venturing into entrepreneurship with the establishment of boutique agencies. It is here that women in public relations are able to eliminate any barriers they probably would experience in corporate communications.

The study of public relations’ glass ceiling is important to the overall health of the industry. ―If women become the public relations practitioners of tomorrow, they will be the standard-bearers for the success of the public relations industry‖ (Toth & Grunig, 1993, p.156). These standard-bearers must have the same rights and rewards as their male


counterparts. The significance of such studies is evident in the conversations,

discussions and changes they spark within the industry and in the study of gender. It is of the highest importance that research continue to take further steps into understand this phenomenon.


Review of Literature

The following review of literature defines the glass ceiling. It then specifically explores the glass ceiling in the public relations profession and the effect it has on public relations practitioners both male and female.

In mainstream media, the phrase ―glass ceiling‖ first appeared in an article published in the March 24, 1986 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Two journalists coined the term in an attempt to describe the challenges faced by women in corporate America (Wrigley, 2002). Earlier uses of the phrase include its appearance in a March 1984 ADweek article by Gay Bryant as well as usage in 1979 by Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiberm, both then employed by Hewlett- Packard. ―The women used the term to explain that while on the surface there seemed to be a clear path of promotion, in actuality women seemed to hit a point where they seemed unable to progress beyond‖ (Wikipedia, 2008). While success and even advancement are possible and do occur for women at entry level and mid management positions, the theory of the glass ceiling maintains that gender biases and discrimination increase as one advances in the hierarchy of corporate America (Cotter, Hermsen, Ovadia & Vanneman, 2001).

Research shows varied definitions of the glass ceiling ranging from simplistic ones as used by Choi and Hon (2002), to more complex ones like that which is

documented by Cotter et al. (2001). In their analysis of the Panel Study of Income

Dynamics, Cotter et al. (2001) assert that four criteria be used to define the glass ceiling: 1. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial difference that is not

explained by other job-relevant characteristics.

2. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial difference that is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome.


3. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels.

4. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial inequality that increases over the course of a career. (p. 656-661)

Research shows that for women in the workforce, the glass ceiling creates obstacles when seeking promotions, raises or when attempting to compete with male counterparts. Glass ceiling discrimination is not based on nor justified by academic or professional limitations held by these women. That is to say that the glass ceiling cannot be cited when women who do not possess equal or better qualifications fail to achieve success. The glass ceiling speaks only to those who, all things being equal, are prohibited from advancing due to gender discrimination. Wrigley (2002) notes, that in 1991 the Department of Labor defined the glass ceiling as ―those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions‖ (p.28).

While individual definitions on how to qualify a glass ceiling may differ, research shows a consensus when describing its effect on our society. The glass ceiling is

described as a being a hindrance to society and researches agree that the glass ceiling is an injustice not only to its victims but to the entire corporate culture. In 1991, the

Department of Labor’s secretary Lynn Martin eloquently concluded her annual report by urging that the Department’s study on the glass ceiling be taken seriously:

The glass ceiling, where it exists, hinders not only individuals, but society as a whole. It effectively cuts our pool of potential corporate leaders by eliminating over one-half of our population. It deprives our economy of new leaders, new sources of creativity – the ―would be‖ pioneers of the business world. If our end game is to compete successfully in today’s global market, then we have to unleash the full potential of the American work force. The time has come to tear down, to dismantle—the ―Glass Ceiling‖ (as cited by Wrigley, 2002, p.28).


The presence of the glass ceiling is widely accepted with numerous experiences having been documented and researched.

The Glass Ceiling in the Public Relations Profession

Since the influx of women into the public relations profession in the 1980s (Serini, Toth, Wright & Emig 1997) public relations scholars have been researching the occurrence of glass ceiling discrimination. Although female public relations practitioners comprised over 50% of the industry in as early as the late 1980s, (Aldoory & Toth, 2002), research shows that the glass ceiling, ―the invisible barrier faced by middle management women‖, (Choi & Hon, 2002, p. 230) has prevented a large number of female practitioners from reaching ―C‖ level management positions. The number of women in public relations has been steadily increasing. Business Week reported that in 1997 women represented ―11.2% of officers at large corporations, an increase from the 10.6 % reported in 1996 and 8.7% in 1995‖ (Wrigley, 2002, p.28).

Studies show that inequities in salary, positions and advancement, particularly between male and female practitioners, are all results of the presence of a glass ceiling within the public relations profession. Wrigley (2002) notes that in its March 2000 Salary Survey PRWEEK found that ―women were paid 72% of the salary paid to men, on

average‖ (p. 28). The industry wide income disparity as well as other discrimination has prompted research into areas including gender perceptions, feminism, job satisfaction, leadership and the perceived feminization of the public relations profession. As an industry, public relations has been thoroughly researched and criticized for its gender inequalities. However, Wrigley (2002) notes that ―men interviewed in public relations projects have denied the problem is real, even when presented with detailed and well-researched information‖ (p. 30).


The bulk of research on the glass ceiling affirms its existence in American public relations firms. However, research on the glass ceiling does not limit its existence to the American public relations industry. Gender biases as described by Wrigley (2000) have also been documented in European public relations firms and agencies. In a study of top management executives, Vianen and Fischer (2002) of the Department of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Amsterdam find that in Europe the glass ceiling has a direct correlation to business operations as well as hiring motives.

Organizations spouting a desire to employ more women in top management often present women with positions in which they would be forced to forego personal commitments and familial aspirations for the sake of their careers. ―As long as companies stress the need for sacrificing one’s private life in order to be able to fulfill a tom management position, women will remain the great minority in these positions‖(p.334).

In Germany, research shows that a stereotype of female public relations

practitioners has developed. In their qualitative study of thirteen female public relations practitioners, Fröhlich and Peters (2007) find that the ―PR Bunny stereotype gathers several components that in former research have been observed somewhat in isolation: the marginalization of the public relations function and women’s reduction to physical attributes: sexism, lookism, ageism‖ (p.242). This reduction is most noticeable when women are excluded from the higher levels of public relations management. By limiting women to tactical, middle level management and staff positions, perpetuates the theory that women in public relations lack the ability to contribute to their company’s financial and business growth (Aldoory, 2005). At some of the leading public relations firms, for example women are scarce in upper management. ―Only twenty-five percent of


Edelman’s leadership is female and Strategic, Merritt and Levick, which are all run by men‖ (Livingston, 2008, p.1-2). It is easy to understand why these facts are crucial to learning how women are affected by a male led industry that is overly populated by women. Probably the clearest reason is that when it comes to advancment and income, positions matter. Dozier and Broom (1995) confirm that positions are linked to salary, ―managers earn significantly higher salaries than technicians‖ (p.54).

Research conducted on the presence of the glass ceiling in public relations is not surprisingly facilitated in large part by female scholars. This often results in research that is conducted with the acceptance of the glass ceiling as a constant. Studies show a

woman’s point of view and in some cases studies are documented as having a feminist approach. Grunig, Toth and Hon (2000) in their exploration of gender and the public relations professionals analyze the similarities between feminism & feminist values and the ethical practice of public relations. Grunig et al. maintain that in a feministic approach to research women are assumed to be effective communicators and skilled practitioners. Hon (1995) notes, ―Women are treated as individuals whose perceptions, meanings, and experiences are appropriate and important data for analysis‖ (p. 28). Research has been conducted to not only evaluate public relations from a feminist point of view but to move toward the development of feminist theories in public relations. In a profession where women have often been silent, studies, (e.g. Aldoory, 2005) have been conducted to ―critique the current feminist paradigm in public relations and (re)conceive the three core concepts of gender, power and diversity‖ (p. 669).

Discussions on the glass ceiling within the public relations profession have, for the majority of work, been limited to analyzing how the phenomenon affects the public


relations industry and its practitioners. Few studies, however, have been conducted to determine what causes and perpetuates the glass ceiling. While much of the research that has been done points to societal causes, Wrigley (2002) identifies 5 factors as possible contributors to the glass ceiling. Wrigley (2002) held focus groups among female

practitioners who had management experience. Results show that while corporate culture and gender role socialization were factors, 3 of the five factors related to the women’s own perceptions, actions or behaviors:

Although the women in this study sometimes initially disagreed that there is a glass ceiling for women in public relations and communications management, by the end of their interview or focus group, many had given examples from their own experiences of others which suggested

otherwise. This denial or rationalization will be examined in terms of the factors these women suggest contribute to the glass ceiling.

Factor 1: Denial

Factor 2: Gender Role Socialization Factor 3: Historical Precedence

Factor 4: Women Turning Against Other Women Factor 5: Corporate Culture (p. 37-41).

The theory that the glass ceiling is sometimes caused and perpetuated by female practitioner’s own actions, while shocking, is not altogether new. Researchers have been documented as suggesting that women in public relations have the power to reach upper management by working within the system that was designed to limit them. Toth and Grunig (1993) note that in the report, Beyond the Velvet Ghetto women are challenged to ―accept that the velvet ghetto as real, learn to play the game and to develop a career plan if they wanted to move into public relations management‖ (p.155). The report suggests that female practitioners are in a position to create opportunities for themselves.

Throughout other corporate institutions women in power also denied the glass ceiling’s existence. When she became the chairwoman of the board at Hewlett-Packard, Carly


Fiorina asserted that there was no glass ceiling, as evident by her achievement (Wikipedia, 2008).

The Glass Ceiling in Public Relations and the Study of Gender

Research on the glass ceiling always included studies into gender. Some have examined income disparities, some perceptions and others gender roles. Chon and Hoi (2002) note that studies ―which have investigated the organizational roles of public relations practitioners, have found consistently that gender acts in concert with other variables to constrain women’s advancement into managerial ranks‖(p. 230). For Serini et al. (1997) ―gender is an organizing principle used to be classify and differentiate humans and to give us guidelines for how we are to interact with others‖ (p.100). Beginning with the Velvet Ghetto study conducted by the International Association of Business Communications, research found a gap in pay between women and men as well as the early feminization of an industry (Toth & Cline 1989). Choi and Hon (2002) note public relations was referred to as the velvet ghetto because corporations would saturate departments with women hoping to compensate for the lack of women in top

management positions. This funneling of women to tactical and support roles accounts for pay gaps and other gender based inequities.

Dozier and Broom (1995) also researched how gender could influence pay scales and roles in public relations. In a comparative analysis of two surveys conducted of Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) members, results show salary gaps between female and male practitioners were smaller in 1991 than in 1979. However other studies of the glass ceiling which were conducted using PRSA members (e.g. Aldoory & Toth, 2002 and Serini et al. 1997) have illustrated significant salary gaps between men and


women public relations practitioners remained prevalent throughout the nineties. After careful analysis, Dozier and Broom (1995) later determined that ―the smaller sample size in 1991 provides less precise estimates of the population parameters‖ (p.18). Research also shows that such disparities exist despite how gender based issues are seen in by men as compared to women.

In other studies of gender and public relations, Choi and Hon (2002) randomly selected members of the Public Relations Society of America to participate in a survey to determine if an increased number of women in powerful public relations positions effects perceptions on gender differences. Findings show that the number of women in powerful positions has no effect on how respondents view gender differences. Instead, Choi and Hon (2002) find that the gender of respondents influenced perceptions of gender

differences. Female respondents perceived larger gender differences and evaluated men more favorably relative to success than male respondents.

Throughout history women have developed social and cultural roles that isolate them into certain societal stereotypes. Women are often pegged as the nurturers, the care givers and the doers while men subscribe to the idea that they are the leaders. However, women have made crucial advancements despite the fact that societal implications of years of stereotypes have taken root in corporate America, particularly in public relations. As a result, in the profession where there exists the very real possibility of women

reversing those roles we continue to see a large percentage of men leave the public relations industry. Aldoory and Toth (2004) find that this socialization argument was given by one of their female focus groups. ―Participants argued that men have difficulty


being lead by women. Men have been so socialized to be the ones giving directions and solving problems‖ (p.177)

One of the earliest studies on gender, the glass ceiling and public relations, Wright, Grunig, Springston and Toth (1991) finds a correlation between gender and job satisfaction (as cited by Serini et al., 1997). Results show that women in public relations were less satisfied with their jobs and witnessed more instances of gender inequalities (Serini et al., 1997). Results show that men tend to be more competitive and define themselves by their work. Women however, include a wider range of things that they view as being important to job satisfaction. Among the most mentioned were flexibility and the need to feel empowered. The increase of women in public relations contributed to a minimized level of job satisfaction in both men and women (Wright et al., 1991). Serini et al. (1997) find that when asked to discuss job satisfaction male respondents mentioned a skewing of workplace opportunities in favor of women to make up for any past

inequality. ― The results of the inquiry into job satisfaction, although contradictory, leads to an overall understanding that there are indeed differences between men’s and women’s levels of satisfaction…‖ (p.101). Male respondents note that since the field had ―become female dominated, they felt men might be less able than women to achieve higher levels in organizations‖ (p109).

While research does not directly point to it, balance among the genders is an underlying theme. Research includes various qualitative studies that illustrate both males and females willingness to engage in dialogue surrounding gender in the field. Both males and females have reason to be understanding of the other’s experience. The public relations industry prides itself on the diversity of its workforce. It ―helps us [practitioners]


better represent our clients‖ (Guiniven, 2007 p.6). Hon (1995) finds that female

practitioners feel that their work environments are dominated by men and that the culture is overtly male. Many comment about being frustrated by what they perceived as

institutional barriers that are based on gender. Researchers suggest that such a balance doesn’t begin on the job at public relations firms but in collegiate classrooms where public relations is first being taught. ―Take a view into any public relations classroom at a college and you will see more women than men‖ (Anderson, 2006, p.30). Hon (1995) identified ―the flawed or inadequate college curriculum in public relations‖ (p.45). Students attributed a deteriorating public relations program to the ―degradation of the public relations function‖ (p.45).

The current research of the glass ceiling in public relations clearly highlights the effect such discrimination has on female practitioners and on the industry as a whole. In an effort to expand the body of knowledge it is important to research how marginalized groups such as African American and Hispanic women are affected by the glass ceiling. A study that focuses on how they perceive and are affected by the glass ceiling, both as women and as people of color, would serve as a unique starting point. Research

examining perceptions held by African American practitioners, specifically males, was missing from the current research. The current body of research also neglects studies into how the glass ceiling is perceived by practitioners before and after they enter the field.



A survey was conducted to obtain explanatory data. The twelve question survey was posted online at A the system generated a link which was emailed to 2 public relations 2 classes at Seton Hall University totaling sixteen, posted on and to select individuals on The survey was a combination of true and false as well as yes and no questions. Respondents were sometimes given the option to reply somewhat, unsure and sometimes.

Questions inquired about respondent’s belief in the glass and perceptions on if and how they are affected. The surveyed purposed to gain insight into how current public relations practitioners and students, both male and female, perceive the presence of a glass ceiling within the field. It also researched practitioners’ perceptions of gender differences within the field.

Respondents were first asked to identify their gender. They were then asked if they believed in the existence of the glass ceiling in the public relations industry. In order to gauge how practitioners viewed women in corporate America, participants were asked whether or not they believed women had the power to go as far as they wanted to in business.

In order to determine how respondents feel gender affects them, the survey then asked respondents if they feel they are limited in their profession because of their gender. To further understand how participants view the glass ceiling and gender discrepancies in public relations the survey questioned whether or not gender helps to determine salary and status within the public relations industry and if having more women in upper management would prevent gender inequality.


The survey went on to examine perceptions of the public relations industry in terms of its suitability for men and women. To learn how respondents felt about

leadership and gender the survey questioned whether or not PR practitioners with female bosses were more satisfied with their jobs. Lastly, to gauge the impact women in

powerful positions has on business respondents were asked if powerful women and female leaders has a positive effect on women in business.



The twelve question survey yielded 33 responses from public relations professionals and students, twenty-nine (87%) female and four (12%) male. The

following results were obtained. When asked if they believed in the existence of the glass ceiling in the public relations industry 45% responded no, 24% said yes and 10% said they were unsure. However, 51% of respondents said they feel that in public relations gender sometimes determines salary and status. Although the majority of respondents, (97%), felt the public relations industry is a good one for women to work in, 39%

answered that gender does have an effect on the success of public relations practitioners. To further explore how respondents view gender and the role it plays in the public relations industry, participants were asked if they believed that public relations

practitioners with female bosses have more job satisfaction than those with male bosses. Twenty-eight out of 33 respondents said that statement was false. The remaining

respondents replied true. Although respondents answered questions in a manner which supports the presence of women in the field and in leadership positions, 97% of

respondents felt that the public relations industry was still a good one for men to work in. To help gauge how survey participants perceived the presence of women in

corporate America, the survey asked participants if they felt women are more powerful in business today than they were five years ago. The majority of respondents replied yes, 24 out of 33 (72.7%). Twenty-one percent the respondents said they thought women were somewhat more powerful while 6.1% said they were unsure. When asked if women had the power to go as far as they wanted to in business 90.9% of the respondents said yes, with only 9.1% of respondents answering that women could not go as far as they wanted.


Of the 33 respondents 21 of them felt they are not limited in their profession because of their gender. However, 30% said they sometimes feel they are limited and 6.2% said they are limited in their profession because of their gender. They survey then asked if

participants believed that having more women in upper management would prevent gender income inequality. More than half responded yes. The remaining students were spilt, with 24.2% responding no and 24.2% responding maybe.

The study showed that while the majority of participants do not believe in the presence of a glass ceiling in the public relations industry there does exist, at least some gender based discrimination. Overall, survey participants believe in the ability of women to advance despite those gender based discrepancies in status and income.



This study, in retrospect, had a variety of limitations. Conducted in the midst of the initial research, the goal of the study was not clearly defined. As a result identifying questions regarding respondents’ job positions, current professional status, age and race were not included in the survey. Also, respondents were, for the majority, female but there were 4 male participants. The study may have been more effective if it included a strictly female pool of participants or if had a larger number of male respondents. Also, the mechanism with which the survey was conducted did not allow me to determine which participant responded in what way.

The results of this study are similar to those highlighted in the review of literature however; there are some differences in the most recent data. The study found that the public relations industry does experience some gender discrepancies when determining status and salary. According to previous research (Wrigley, 2002), ―women were paid 72% of the salary paid to men, on average‖ (p. 28).

This study shows that students and public relations professionals (97%) believe the public relations industry is a good one for both men and women to work in. This indicates a level of current or perceived job satisfaction in the field. However, Serini, Toth Wright and Emig (1997) find that when asked to discuss job satisfaction male respondents mentioned a skewing of workplace opportunities in favor of women to make up for any past inequality. ― The results of the inquiry into job satisfaction, although contradictory, leads to an overall understanding that there are indeed differences between men’s and women’s levels of satisfaction…‖ (p.101).


When asked about the existence of a ―glass ceiling‖ in the public relations field, this study found that 45% did not believe it existed. However, in previous research, the glass ceiling is widely accepted. For example, although female public relations

practitioners comprised over 50% of the industry in as early as the late 1980s (Aldoory & Toth, 2002), research shows that the glass ceiling, ―the invisible barrier faced by middle management women‖, (Choi & Hon, 2002, p. 230) has prevented a large number of female practitioners from reaching ―C‖ level management positions.

The survey finds that while respondents do not admit to the existence of a glass ceiling, they do recognize that women may face certain gender based inequities. Further research into the usage and acceptance of the actually term ―glass ceiling‖ may be required to determine whether or not a younger generation of professionals and students embrace it.

Unlike those surveyed by Choi and Hon (2002) who support the idea that the number of women in powerful positions has no effect on how respondents view gender differences, this study found that 51% of public relations practitioners and students believe having more women in upper management would prevent gender income inequity.

This study, while it included participants that were either in the public relations field or current public relations students, was limited in that it did not allot for

respondents to give explanatory answers to questions. The glass ceiling in public relations is a broad ranging subject with a number of variables. Perhaps a qualitative study in which respondents were able to describe his or her personal experiences, expectations and perceptions would provide more insight into how the glass ceiling


affects practitioners and students. Wrigley (2002), for example utilized focus groups and interviews do not only determine perceptions of female practitioners but to also develop factors which contribute to the glass ceilings existence in public relations. Hon (2002) also used in depth interviews and focus groups to determine that women in public relations experience marginalization. This study, however found that respondents do not feel they are limited in the public relations profession because of their gender. In fact, only 6% of respondents said yes they feel they are limited.

Further studies need to be facilitated to observe perception of female practitioners before and after they enter the public relations field. A qualitative study which in which the subjects are female public relations students prior to their entrance into the public relations workforce and a second portion which includes those same students once they’ve entered and worked in the field would be useful in understanding what role public relations education plays in readying female students for the realities of the workforce as Anderson (2006) suggests. It would also enable researchers to gauge how perceptions differ from actual experiences.

Other studies should be conducted to learn more about how women of color, specifically Latinas and African American women are affected by the glass ceiling in public relations. Studies of these two marginalized groups would provide insight into the multiculturalism as well into the study of diversity and they role it plays in eliminating the glass ceiling. Hon (1995) noted that her study did not include a diverse group of female public relations practitioners. Hon notes, ―These women were middle class and mostly White and American‖ (p. 41). This study did not identify the race of the


The study of the glass ceiling in public relations is a tree with a variety of branches which research is responsible for covering. Whether it is the study of gender roles, perceptions, education within the field or the marginalization of women in public relations, the opportunity scholars researching the topic help practitioners understand the glass ceiling and possibly, for the greater good of the industry, eliminate it.



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