Do PR agencies need a radical rethink on working mothers?
Steve Earl, PR Week
Several years ago I was talking to the MD of a mid-sized PR agency about things that worried him about his business. His biggest was pretty straightforward: more than three-quarters of his staff were female, and the majority of them were account manager level and above. And many were in their late 20s to early 30s.
So you know what that meant: there was a very realistic possibility that before long, a large chunk of his staff may be off on maternity leave at the same time.
Which would mean those staff would be receiving some level of maternity pay, while ‘replacement’ workers would have to be paid too.
Meanwhile, the agency would no doubt worry about client stability if lots of permanent staff were off on leave at similar times and temporary measures were taken. It’d be particularly tricky if those individuals were anchor staff who’d worked with those clients for some time.
Equally, new business would be really challenging because that’s always more difficult when your permanent people are away on leave and resources are squeezed anyway. Large agencies may be able to work around maternity leave by moving some staff around, but smaller firms may find it really difficult, particularly in the case of lots of people being on leave at the same time. And any women who has interviewed for a PR job in her early 30s soon after marriage will know that employers may be wondering whether they intend to start a family, and if so when.
Let’s look at a few facts. Firstly, couple do have sex, and this can lead to procreation, whether planned or not. Secondly, the late 20s to late 30s (and beyond, we all know someone don’t we?) are a time when women who want children tend to think a lot about starting or further developing a family. Thirdly, that time of life is one when a lot of women working for PR firms will be experienced, valued members of agency teams who’re often important or fundamental to the success of the business and the clients they work for.
So without any criticism in the direction of the aforementioned agency boss, why does pregnancy seem to catch PR firms on the hop so often? I can’t think of a single case of having hired someone when I’ve failed to observe whether or not they are female, and until scientists put the male womb into production manufacturing that should at least inform you that the person may become a mother at some point in the future (if they’re not already).
In summary, then, PR agencies have the challenge of the very real prospect of some of their most important staff being on one or more periods of leave of up to 12 months at times when they are of utmost value to their clients, to the firm they work for and to the people who work with them. And while we can’t predict it, there’s a reasonable likelihood that it will happen to some degree (sorry to sound more than a little pragmatic here, but ‘tis true).
A CIPR survey, the results of which were unleashed on the waiting world last week, showed that – accordingly to a representative sample of human beings probed on the matter at hand – ‘top talent would quit the comms industry unless working practices became more flexible’ over this very issue. I hadn’t even got on to flexible working had I?
The poll also showed that 9.4 per cent had serious reservations about hiring women in their 30s because they might “fall pregnant” (what, tumble upon some sperm in just the wrong/right way?). This statistic is shocking only because it is so low – I am sure the ‘real’ number would be far higher if people were more honest.
Fear of losing a valuable resource, of staff upheaval and of instability were cited as big concerns. The worse outcomes for me were about apparent workforce disharmony – 62 per cent felt they’d be discriminated against if they became pregnant and 78 per cent felt they’d be undermined if they returned to work. Sure, these are feelings rather than facts, but none the less shocking.
The CIPR suggested some very sensible and far-reaching ways in which the industry can tackle these challenges.
I think we should be going further. We shouldn’t just change our attitudes, we should make some fundamental changes to the way agencies offer their services that acknowledge the fact that maternity leave happens. We shouldn’t be an industry that follows others. We’re public relations people – we should lead, and communicate why we’re doing so.
My idea is that we have a pragmatic approach to working mums. Rather than people going on leave, coming back but potentially struggling to balance work and home life, then perhaps going on leave again, and again, we should apply mums who have (or are having) young children to agency work in a different way. A way that gets the best out of them, is really good for their careers, good for their families, and helps them to be brilliant mums and brilliant PR folk at the same time.
They’re some of the most valuable people we have, so we need not just to ensure they don’t encounter professional or cultural problems as a result of being a mum, but that we take a more progressive approach to their roles for clients and the agency, to the nature of the work they do, to the days and hours they work, and to how we keep them (albeit they’re not working) engaged in the business to some degree while they are on leave.
There’s a lot to work to do there, but the conventional approach of ‘She’s pregnant. I know, what a surprise! So we need to come up with a plan’ doesn’t really cut it for the employee, the employer or their clients. In fact I know a lot of clients who do take a more progressive approach to motherhood in their marketing and comms teams, and would welcome suggestions from agencies about a more grown-up approach.
Incidentally, I am not a mother. But I have had three kids with my wife while she was working for the same agency as me.
uploaded: Tue, May 22 2012
modified: Tue, Dec 30 1969
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