New Year, New Job? How the hyper-networked world of Public Relations could offer clues about the gender pay gap

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By Anna Atkins, PhD student, Department of Management

Many people wake up on January 1 with one resolution – new year, new job. Job hunters often turn to their personal network of colleagues, former co-workers, and LinkedIn contacts for help with their next career move. Or, if they are lucky, a new job opportunity will come unsolicited from their network.

But use of informal personal networks in hiring has been linked to gender career disparities such as pay and progression gaps.  One reason for this is the different career-related networks accessed by men and women and the knock-on effects these have for the types of jobs they will hear about, be encouraged to apply for or be headhunted for.

Gender network differences

There are many potential drivers of personal network differences. One is gender homophily – the principle that birds of a feather flock together. Gender homophily simply means men are more likely to be friends with men and women with women. This can arise either through choice, whether conscious or unconscious, or as a byproduct of the different life pathways men and women take. For example, if women cluster in certain roles they are more likely to befriend colleagues who are women. In sectors where men typically have more senior jobs than women – which is most – gender homophily yields better networks for career progression for men than women.

Changes to network-building opportunities often come with parenthood. In the UK, mothers are more likely than fathers to take time out of the workforce for childcare. This can result in lower participation in valuable networks both externally, such as attending events, and internally, such as taking on roles that boost visibility with senior decision-makers.

Despite these constraints, both women and men remain active shapers of their own personal networks and choose who to deepen and maintain friendships with on the basis of far more than career advancement. But in terms of more instrumental networking, involvement with professional or sector groups, both on and offline, is a common strategy to build career-related networks.

Public Relations – a standout sector for network research  

Gender pay and progression gaps are complex phenomena, however the impact of parenthood is central to understanding them. Claudia Goldin, who was recently awarded a Nobel prize for her work on the gender pay gap, suggests it is only by looking closely at the link between progression and parenthood-driven flexible working within individual occupations that the ‘last chapter’ on gender wage inequality can be written.

For my PhD research at the University of Birmingham, I am studying how parenthood and flexible working shapes networks and how, in turn, different networks lead to gender differences in career progression. Following Goldin’s advice, I focus on the progression structures of an individual sector – Public Relations (PR) – a standout sector for its powerful network dynamics.

PR is interesting for another reason. According to CIPR research, although the sector as a whole is female-dominated, its top roles are disproportionately occupied by men. If any sector is to offer clues therefore about the way networks and pay gaps relate, I believe it is PR.

Personal networks are a powerful driver of many outcomes in PR. Day-to-day job performance depends on them to effectively advocate for clients, but very often so does individual career advancement. It is common to hear of career moves arising informally through network contacts. For both reasons, there is a strong emphasis on active network management in PR and a wide range of organisations exist to help practitioners do this.

PR therefore gives researchers like myself an ideal context to understand the opportunities people have to build networks, the choices and challenges they face and the strategies they use to overcome any challenges. It also gives the chance to understand the flows of career-related help that come from these networks and how these shape working lives over the long-term.

I am currently interviewing men and women in PR who are parents about the journey their career and networks have taken over their working lives. I am exploring not only the support they received but also any help they have given to others. This helps to understand career support flows as a reciprocal process. If you are a parent working in PR in the UK, please consider participating.

This research into the hyper-networked world of PR will further our understanding of how ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ applies in the workplace. This could offer insights not just for PR, but for any sector where networks play a role in recruitment and progression.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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