Improving gender balance in the public relations industry by creating a new office dynamic: The right thing to do and the business smart thing to do – Avril Lee, Director at Luther Pendragon

Stem cells

Avril Lee is a Director at Luther Pendragon who has over 20 years’ experience of international and UK communications for a range of corporate, consumer and healthcare clients. In healthcare, Avril has worked on many high profile therapies from rare conditions to diseases shaping population health and has led highly successful product launches, engaging leading influencers and building trust with third parties. Avril is passionate about improving diversity in PR and is an active member of the CIPR’s Diversity Working Group. 

Avril Lee

Avril Lee

“…Earn it, ask for it – promotion, new opportunities, that great project that needs a team, a pay rise, some flex, secondments – ask for it, you have earned it! Know your faults but don’t doubt your abilities… And try to always be true to yourself…” 

A love of science, only not in a lab coat…

After studying biochemistry at university I knew I didn’t want to end up in the lab! I loved the science but didn’t love life in a lab coat. I’d always loved the arts too and started a diploma in Film Studies soon after I graduated.

I took a summer job that turned into my first real role – practice manager in a GPs’ surgery in a deprived area of inner London. Then I saw an ad in The Guardian asking for people who understood healthcare and the NHS and wanted to work in the media…

Since then I have worked in global and UK public relations creating communications programmes for medicines and charities, and raising consumer awareness of major diseases and health challenges. I’ve worked in independent specialist boutiques and large networked agency groups, leading both healthcare teams and the London office of a global network.

I’m currently leading the health team at Luther where we combine PR and PA [public affairs] expertise and work with leading organisations such as NHS England and AbbVie.

Fascinating work that makes ‘high science’ ‘high street’

PharmaceuticalsFor me healthcare offers a satisfying mix of intellectual rigour, strategic challenge, practical creativity and outcomes that really do make a difference – in the most extreme cases, helping to save lives.

I also love the science and the medical detail – yes the biochemistry nerd in me still loves a detailed discussion about a molecule – and taking something ‘high science’ and making it ‘high street’ is really rewarding. As is getting to working with people who really are the smartest folk in their field.

And on the other side of the dynamic is partnering with patient groups and patients who are often simply inspirational. I’ve been really fortunate to work in disease areas like oncology and HIV and have met some wonderful people who want to tell their story to help others.

Whether it’s the power of healthcare comms to shape society’s health and behaviours when faced with illness that affects society at large or its ability to help drive change and recognition for a rare disease, the work is fascinating.

About the CIPR’s Diversity Working Group

The CIPR’s Diversity Working Group, or DWG, was established five years ago to address the need for more diversity in the comms industry. Diversity in all its forms – our aim is drive change and create an industry that is inclusive and representative across gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic group and age.

As someone who is Irish Chinese and comes from a working class background, I didn’t see anyone with a similarly diverse background to me in the agencies I worked in – especially at senior level. Diversity is therefore something I feel very strongly about.

Improving representation in the industry – the right thing to do and the business smart thing to do

We need to improve representation in the industry – it’s the right thing to do and it’s the business smart thing to do. We are constantly seeking creativity and new ideas. We need to understand and communicate with increasingly diverse audiences with ever more special interests across a constantly fragmenting media – and we can only do this well and for sustained periods if we build our teams with diverse thinking, backgrounds and understanding.

The DWG has championed diversity and helped to make it a ‘fit for the future’ agenda item. When we started our group virtually nobody was talking about diversity in PR, now it’s commonly agreed we need change!

We achieved this via a range of activities and outreach. Recent DWG work has included: a PR career guide for young people from disadvantaged and ethnically diverse backgrounds, a summit on diverse and inclusive communications, regular Equal Access Network events with guest speakers inspiring best practice in diversity, and the creation of the ‘Inclusive Communications’ category at the CIPR Excellence Awards – so we can celebrate change and great work.

And let’s not forget our clients also have diversity on their internal and external agendas – we’re increasingly being asked to provide diverse teams to work on business. If you don’t come round to the need to improve diversity, it will come to you!

Why gender balance is such a key issue in the industry and why the CIPR’s work is so important in this area

People often hold up the boards of PR agencies as great examples of diversity – look they say, it’s 50:50 men and women, we’re doing great. But the truth is, as an industry, public relations is two-thirds female.

So quite frankly 50:50 clearly shows that women are not properly represented in senior roles and the glass ceiling is still in place. There are some amazing female leaders and senior professionals in this industry – that’s part of the attraction as a woman to come into the business to learn from female role models – but there should be more, a lot more.

The fact that the CIPR have definitively shown there is a gender pay gap just further highlights that we have some way to go before we have a truly representative industry.

Recent CIPR research states that gender has the third biggest possible influence on an individual’s salary in PR, even after factors such as length of service, seniority, parenthood and the higher prevalence of part-time work amongst women are accounted for. What we can do to address this

It’s difficult and we’re not the only industry facing this challenge but as a female powered industry that prides itself on adapting to new challenges and driving change for clients, surely we must have a better chance that most sectors?

For me there are a number of short and long-term areas we need to look at, for example:

Leadership responsibility – leaders and team managers need to take responsibility for ensuring fairness in their teams. It’s too easy to reward staff that shout the loudest, the new joiner or the one that asks for a raise. Can you critically look at your team and justify pay differences between men and women? Sadly it’s often not the case. Leaders should address unfair gaps proactively and not just when they are pushed to.

Building women’s confidence – in my experience women are less likely to ask for a salary increase or push back at an offer they are not happy with. There are a lot of personal and societal reasons for this but we need to encourage women to have the confidence to ask for a salary that reflects their worth.

I also think working mums often feel less confident in this area: seeing themselves as solid workers (and not ‘star performers’) and feeling that if they have the benefit of working flexibly they shouldn’t really ask for a pay rise. In fact they are assigning an economic value to flexible working, but all types of employees work in this way, it’s not an added luxury.

Getting the compensation systems and the communication of the systems right – transparency of pay bands is an obvious one. Not always easy but it is possible. And if you can’t stand by your decisions on how and who you reward in your teams, is it really based on fair and equal consideration.

Clear criteria – in the same vein, clear criteria for promotion and bonuses as well as a skills based framework for roles will help to define salary by position, and not gender, and create a practical framework for decisions.

And if we don’t address this? The drain of senior female talent will continue to be a barrier to our industry’s growth.

Banishing the 24/7, ‘always on’ culture whether for women or men to ensure a proper work / life balance

Woman emailing on sofaCritical to this are the issues of culture and the expectations of the organisation. The agency leadership have to communicate and actively support people to lead balanced lives with time for work, personal interests and family life. They also have to establish healthy working practices such as not normalising answering emails late at night or while they are on holiday! It is these behaviours that create an unofficial culture – regardless of what it says on the HR slides!

Realistically I think most people believe you can achieve balance – just not all of the time! But things like creating a flexible, trust driven working environment can really help to manage work needs and still enable people to ‘feed their soul’ or meet daily family commitments.

New technology and flexible working part of the solution to create a new office dynamic

New technology has changed how we can work and communicate and is a key part of this solution. From remote access, cloud based assets, smart phone and IM [instant messaging], it really has never been easier to work from just about anywhere. Making technologies supportive of flexible and home working available really provides practical help.

We need to embrace more innovative ways of working as well, such as job shares. These new work models are needed to create a better balance and a new office dynamic. In a creative industry we really don’t have to do it like ‘we’ve always done’. In fact new approaches will help drive positive change, like finding new ways to keep part-time talent in our business.

Does an emptier inbox equal a better sense of wellbeing?

Boring but true, we also really do need to train our people on how to use the time they have more effectively. Yes time management, but also strategies for the constant deluge of emails and diary requests most people face every day. The bad side of technology. We rarely do this formally and certainly not once you are mid-level or beyond.

Let’s help our people manage their available time better – and they will have more time whether for work or life, a better sense of wellbeing and an emptier in-box!

And lastly, good client management and relationships. Whenever possible we need to manage the work flow and ensure it’s the urgent things that are done late in the office and not just the 9-5 to do list.

Tips for women, regardless of sector, looking to progress to senior level roles

There is no easy answer and I can only speak from my personal experience and experience of managing teams.

Show your passion and energy for the work, be a person that connects the people across the business and is solution focused.

Seek out a good mentor who can help you navigate the company and provide a ‘sanity check’ in those challenging times.

Network and critically don’t forget the informal networks within the culture. These can be particularly challenging when you have childcare or outside commitments and there doesn’t seem to be any extra time in the day or after work. Try to find that time to connect with key people informally, even if just once a month.

Support other women – both within and outside (via industry groups) your organisation – you’ll benefit and so will they. Hearing how someone is managing the same (or worse!) workplace issues can really help, as can sharing experiences.

Earn it, ask for it – promotion, new opportunities, that great project that needs a team, a pay rise, some flex, secondments – ask for it, you have earned it! Know your faults but don’t doubt your abilities.

And try to always be true to yourself.

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