Gender still plays a big role in determining how someone’s identity and personality is perceived and presented in the communications industry, according to initial findings from a study focusing on gender differences in the public relations world.

The findings were released by Amelia Reigstad, a visiting assistant professor of marketing communications at The University of Wisconsin–River Falls. Reigstad interviewed PR pros to uncover what factors they believe influence how they communicate and what influence gender has on the practice of PR and the workplaces in which these practitioners perform.

Reigstad’s study suggests that PR professionals exhibit a wide array of different communication and personality traits in the office, and those characteristics — as opposed to someone’s gender alone — can have a real impact on how projects are developed.

Amelia Reigstad
Amelia Reigstad presents her Ph. D findings at an IABC event in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Still, there were some noted variations in the ways in which men and women said they communicate in the workplace, and female respondents were quick to articulate what they perceived to be obvious differences, and more often than not, shared those differences in a somewhat negative light, claiming they don’t feel equal to men in a workplace environment. Men’s opinions on these differences, on the other hand, appeared to be expressed in a somewhat muted fashion.

Specifically, the study found that female practitioners said they’ll often adopt “masculine” traits and essentially behave like men in the hopes of gaining recognition and being treated as an equal. More than three-quarters of female respondents — 77 percent — admitted that they take on what they perceive to be “male” qualities in order to be successful.

“I wasn’t necessarily surprised that many female practitioners that I had interviewed were taking on masculine qualities or traits in order to be successful in the workplace, because although the industry is predominately female, leadership positions are still for the most part filled with men,” Reigstad told O’Dwyers. “According to my research, women have been witness to how men have succeeded in securing leadership positions within the workplace for many years and they feel like if they mimic that type of behavior or personality, they too will be successful and rewarded with executive positions.”

This personality adaptation isn’t limited to women in PR, however. Interestingly, Reigstad found that many practitioners admitted that they essentially play a performance role in their day-to-day jobs, putting on a facade and often avoiding communicating what’s on their minds to colleagues and clients. An incredible 95 percent of practitioners admitted doing this at some point, with many claiming that this roleplaying was typically borne out of an expectation to always be "on” when interacting with colleagues or clients.

“I was extremely surprised that public relations practitioners were ‘performing’ per se on a day-to-day basis to colleagues and clients; essentially putting on a front or playing a role especially because the aim of PR practitioners is to practice truthful, ethical and transparent public relations,” Reigstad told O’Dwyer’s. “To me, therein lies a slight contradiction to what PR practitioners do and say and this could be considered an issue. If we are to practice transparent public relations on behalf of organizations and clients, we should be as transparent as possible within our interpersonal communications.”

Reigstad's’ findings also suggest that inequality between men and women at the C-suite level remains a major issue of concern among women. An overwhelming number of women interviewed — 96 percent — said they’re still concerned about gender inequality in the workplace. Men, meanwhile, appear to be aware of these challenges but don’t seem especially motivated to make actionable changes in this department, perhaps due to the fact that these issues don’t impact them in any direct way.

Women in the PR workplace expressed facing numerous personal, societal and professional expectations amounting to a desirable work/life balance that they view as an almost impossible task to achieve. Particularly, women with children said they struggle daily to fill the dual roles of mother and practitioner, which inevitably results in feelings that they’re coming up short in one department or another, either in the office or at home.

Age also appears to present its own set of communication challenges within the industry. Older practitioners — specifically, senior male PR pros — are often perceived as arrogant and ego-driven, and can exhibit difficulty communicating with younger female practitioners. Unpleasant interactions, speaking down or “mansplaining” were cited as frequent occurrences. Many older men avoid interactions with younger female practitioners altogether and typically make decisions in a vacuum without the input of others. Again, the study found that many senior-level female practitioners admitted to essentially adopting many of these traits, which they view as a means to their own success.

The study also found that Millennials are perceived to communicate differently and less effectively in the work environment regardless of gender, often limiting face-to-face communication and using screen-based methods (like texting) as a substitute.

Finally, the study found that most PR pros believe gender plays a role in influencing a person’s identity and personality — as does culture, race and socio-economics — and practitioners widely said they aim to practice ethical, transparent PR, with 95 percent of all interviewed (both male and female) claiming that diversity is of utmost importance in their place of work.

Reigstad's’ findings are part of the dissertation she’s currently writing for a Ph. D. in Media and Communications at the University of Leicester in the UK. In the course of conducting her research, Reigstad spent last year interviewing more than 40 PR pros practitioners within the Minneapolis/St. Paul region from agencies as well as companies’ internal PR departments.

Reigstad recently shared her initial findings during an April presentation at an International Association of Business Communicators event in St. Paul.