is the future of comms unequal?

Look around at comms teams and there is an imbalance. The senior people are men. The team are overwhelmingly female. That surely means the people at the top will be female in future, surely?

by Julie Waddicor

As many of my colleagues have blogged and tweeted, the first session of the LGCommunications ‘Future Leaders’ programme took place a couple of weeks ago. It is a fantastic programme that I am hugely honoured to be a student of. It’s the kind of opportunity that money would struggle to buy: the bringing together of a group of peers (and the other people on the course are both hugely impressive and talented, so I better up my game), the allocation of a mentor and the opportunity to talk to people like Alex Aiken (Executive Director for Government Communications) and Christian Cubitt (Deputy Spokeperson to the Prime Minister), who frankly have other, fairly pressing calls upon their time.

If you ever have the chance to take part, I would urge you to do so wholeheartedly.

There was much comment both during and after the initial session that this year’s Future Leaders are all women. It has been much celebrated, and rightly so. But, at the risk of sounding like a traitor to the sisterhood, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Before you condemn me as an unreformed 1950s housewife, I’ll explain why.

It is still the case that the majority of Heads of Communications are men, and so it is positive that there are so many women on the Future Leaders course. There is inequality at the top. In my opinion, there are three reasons for this:

  1. 1.       Some senior managers and politicians still think you need a man to do a tough job. – Many Heads of Communications are men with a certain presence, who have usually been journalists in a former life. Many Chief Executives and council Leaders still believe that you need a journalist (and a man) to be Head of Communications because it is hard, and you’ll get shouted at. You don’t – us women (and non-journalists) can cope. Please don’t get me wrong, I have seen many Heads of Comms who are male former journalists who have been absolutely brilliant. I have also seen some (male and female) who were terrible. Essentially what you need is someone who thinks strategically, who inspires and leads with authority, and who has done the hard yards in both PR and stakeholder communications. Gender doesn’t come in to it.
  2. 2.       Some women’s careers are slowed down by children. – Hopefully, this is increasingly an issue for both men and women, and not a female preserve any more. I’ve worked in local government comms for 11 years, and for 8 of those I worked part time as I raised my children. That was entirely my choice and I do not regret it for a moment, but realistically it will have slowed down my career progression. I did not fail to notice that the other Future Leaders were somewhat younger than my 38 years, and I hope that as the joy of raising children is increasingly shared by members of the family across age and gender divides that this will cease to be such an issue. If that’s the case, then the inequality at the top should start to balance out.
  3. 3.       Head of Comms is a ‘dead man’s shoes’ job. – There aren’t that many Heads of Comms jobs in local government any more, and once people are in post they tend to stay there. Combine that with the restrictions many people have on their geographical location, and you have a situation where the opportunities don’t come up that often. This is an issue for men and women equally: I know lots of incredibly capable men across local government who don’t get the chance of promotion because the contraction of the sector and the lack of movement combine to mean the chance never arises.

There are issues for women, as highlighted above, but there are issues for other groups of people too. The lack of men in the room did make me uncomfortable – we need a balanced future sector, not one skewed in either direction – but the lack of anyone from a minority ethnic group was equally, if not more, troubling. If we don’t see many women in Heads of Comms roles, we certainly don’t see many people who are not of White British origin in those posts. We need to look at the barriers to both entry into our industry and advancement within it, both real and perceived, and tackle them so that everyone (regardless of gender or ethnicity) has an equal opportunity to take the top roles. I don’t have the answers. But perhaps it is something that current and future leaders, and Heads of Comms, need to look at.

In conclusion: to be honest, I don’t care about the demographics of current and future Heads of Comms. For the sake of our industry and the people we serve, I want the best people in those jobs, regardless of who they are and where they come from. With the lack of diversity we see at the moment, that can’t currently be the case. We should all be working towards a truly equal sector, whilst rightly celebrating the achievement of the Future Leaders who have earned their place on a fantastic course.

Julie Waddicor is Campaigns and Internal Communications Manager at Staffordshire County Council.

Picture credit.