Where did all the men go?

Some questions have no easy answer. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop?

Add another question to that list: What happened to all of the men in PR?

It wasn’t all that long ago that a bunch of men established the public relations industry as we know it today. Innovative businessmen like P.T. Barnum first pushed the limits of publicity, and were followed by enterprising young men like Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee, who met a need that executives all over the world didn’t know they had yet.

The world’s largest and most successful PR agencies were, not surprisingly, founded by men. Still today, the executive leadership of global media conglomerates and smaller, privately held PR firms alike is largely male. But one look around the office, and it’s obvious things have changed in the last fifty years. Our own Ketner Group office is a microcosm of this gender imbalance, with our lone male, our agency principal, outnumbered five to one.

But why were there almost no men in my senior-level PR classes last spring? Why do we receive almost no male candidates when we post an open job position? Has public relations gone the way of teaching and nursing and become “women’s work?” Possibly. A 2008 survey of PRSSA, the student chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, found that 89 percent of its 9,600 members were female.

Perhaps the idea of being compared to Samantha Jones is scaring them off. Maybe it’s the restrictiveness of pencil skirts (kidding).  Or maybe men who otherwise would have been interested in PR are instead drawn to business schools’ marketing programs that offer more professional caché and higher starting salaries, or have the misconception that “creative” and “chatty” women are naturally more suited to the industry than their more “analytical” and “logical” male counterparts.

Maybe it’s not a reflection of PR at all. Maybe PR is just a symptom of a greater problem, a victim of the same phenomenon that affects communication colleges across the country, which increasingly churn out more degreed ladies than gents, an academic disparity that gets far less attention than the dearth of women in the math and sciences. My own alma mater, the College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin, had fully twice as many women as men enrolled in Fall 2009.

Or maybe it’s not the “why” that matters; it’s the “what” and the “how.” What will the industry look like in 30 years? More specifically, what will the executive leadership of firms look like in 30 years? How will the gender disparity affect women’s ability to climb up the corporate ladder? Baylor University economics professor Kent Gilbreth found that men’s starting salary in PR is more than $12,000 higher than women’s starting salaries, one of the largest differences found in the report — and while women have an annual growth rate of about 2.75 percent, men’s annual growth rate far surpasses that at a whopping 6.43 percent! Are the rare male PR grads treated with deference and special treatment? Will their careers be fast-tracked to managerial and executive positions, aided by good ole boy networks, just because they are men? (Certainly not to say that many don’t deserve promotion – we’d never say that PR skills truly vary between men and women.) Will the corner offices of PR firms be occupied by men in 2040, leaving the vast majority of their (female) peers in the dust?

This is one trend that shows no signs of slowing down, but it’s one to pay attention to. For better or worse, and aside from the exceptions and executives, public relations is missing its men.