Blazing trails: Canadian women in PR

May 23, 2017
Stephanie Harrington
Associate professors Julia Jahansoozi and Virginia McKendry

Royal Roads researchers are going behind the numbers to tell the story of trailblazing women in Canada’s public relations industry.

Associate professors Julia Jahansoozi and Virginia McKendry are undertaking the first in-depth Canadian study of the female-dominated profession.

Jahansoozi, director of the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads, says she noticed a growing body of research from European countries, Australia and the U.S.A around gender-related issues in public relations (PR).

But she says most research about women in public relations has focused on issues such as wage gaps or the feminization of the profession. (Statistics show two-thirds of public relations professionals are women, compared to male-dominated careers such as journalism.)

Jahansoozi, a public relations academic, joined with McKendry, who specializes in gender studies and historiography, to develop the study, called Narratives of Pioneering Women in Public Relations in Canada. The team set out to find how women experience their careers and to understand how and if gender had affected their choices and experiences.

“We were much more interested in the stories behind the numbers,” McKendry says. “We wanted to talk to senior women in the profession, those pioneering PR women practitioners who had begun their career when the profession was still in its infancy and who themselves have contributed to the formation of communication as a profession.”

The researchers analyzed 14 hours of interviews with seven public relations professionals on Vancouver Island, asking them a range of questions about their family background, career pathways, mentors and challenges. The women included professionals from government, corporate and academic sectors.

After the interviews, Jahansoozi and McKendry summarized the women’s professional life stories, identified themes in each and then looked across each of the themed stories to find patterns. Among the more than 100 pages of transcribed notes, “imposter syndrome” was a common theme.

“We heard, ‘I’ve been lucky,’ a lot. Women in general are more likely to talk about their careers with less bravado,” Jahansoozi says.  “These highly competent and talented women often had feelings of inadequacy even when the reality was they were highly effective in their roles.”

Other themes included the “accidental career,” male mentoring and education. Jahansoozi says that all of the women reported either an early love of writing or had early career experience that emphasized writing before entering public relations. Statistics Canada figures show public relations has surpassed traditional writing careers, with a four-to-one ratio of public relations professionals working to every journalist in Canada.

“None of our interviewees had initially thought of having a PR career. However, all had strengths as strong readers and writers, were interested in people and valued ethics,” Jahansoozi says. “Our interviewees found their way into PR via using their transferable skill sets.”

The pioneering women credited powerful mentors, some of them male, with helping them launch their careers at a time when fewer women held influential positions. McKendry says the interviewees recognized early in their career that education and building strong networks were crucial to their success. Several of the research participants helped reinvigorate local public relations associations. They also worked together to develop then-non-existent public relations curriculum to professionalize the industry.

“They were all speaking to how their success relied on their ability to reach out to a community of people, mostly other women working in the field. They have a lot of brainpower they can draw on,” McKendry says. “Their diversity is important and their willingness to draw on that diversity is crucial to their success.”

McKendry says contrary to the myth that public relations equates to “spin”, the researchers found ethics and values were important to the women interviewed.

The researchers will present their findings at the Canadian Public Relations Society National Summit in Kelowna from May 28 to 30. They hope to expand the study nationally to develop a larger sample, and to see if there similarities and differences in pioneering PR women’s professional experiences across the country.

Jahansoozi and McKendry have applied to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for an Insight Development Grant. The researchers hope the study will one day include interviews from men in public relations, PR women working in ethnic and Indigenous contexts, and with younger generations of men and women in PR.

“The long-term goal is to present a fuller picture of the people involved in the development of public relations in Canada, and how gender colours that story,” McKendry says. “We want to contribute a Canadian angle to the growing body of research.