The Need for More Women in Power

July 1, 2016

[sony pictures]
[sony pictures]

From the president of the United States to a Shakespearean character to a ghostbuster, there are some roles that we don’t automatically envision women occupying. It takes time and cultural change to reimagine old archetypes, and presenting new versions of them is part of what contemporary and cutting-edge public relations should be.

In Shakespeare’s time, men or teenage boys exclusively took on the female roles in his plays. Women could attend the theater (the Queen certainly did) but weren’t allowed onstage, for fear that they’d become entwined with a disreputable profession and exposed to the vagaries of theatrical life.

In New York City, one of this season’s Shakespeare in the Park productions featured an all-female cast in arguably one of the Bard’s most misogynistic plays, “The Taming of the Shrew.” The “shrew,” Kate, is essentially sold by her father to a money-hungry suitor, taken to his country house and starved and sleep-deprived until she submits to his wills. All of this, ostensibly, is in an effort to break her and make her marriage material.

Last month, thousands of theatergoers in Central Park witnessed this scene and more with women acting as the male characters. In this fresh production, under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, the women delivered each of the play’s rude and bawdy lines — lines which might not have felt quite as uncomfortable if a man were delivering them.

Dismissing a fresh take

Meanwhile, a similar phenomenon is happening at movie theaters nationally. The remake of the 1984 blockbuster “Ghostbusters” features four actresses, including Emmy-winner Melissa McCarthy and Oscar nominee Kristen Wiig, in the classic male roles. But America at-large is not embracing the fresh take as much as New Yorkers did with a revamped Shakespeare production. The “Ghostbusters” YouTube trailer has been one of the most derided in the platform’s history (870,000 dislikes as of press time).

Of course, die-hard fans of any film often bristle at remakes, but the vitriol here seems outsized.

The YouTube comments range from the purely sexist — “The writers failed to realize the fat shrieking banshees are supposed to be the ghosts, not the ghostbusters” — to the dim and befuddled, “Why did femenists [sic] have to kill one of the very few classics i actually like?”

Director Paul Feig vented his own frustrations about the film’s buzz, which was mounting long before it was released to audiences. “We are never not referred to as the ‘all-female Ghostbusters,’ which makes me crazy.”

Turning the tide

Much is made of the lack of women’s roles in the traditional arts, such as theater, as well as our roles in Hollywood. Can the media and the PR profession, as well as female entertainers and artists, help shift that conversation?

To begin, we need more women in power in our profession to turn the tide. According to The Holmes Report, women comprise about 70 percent of the overall PR workforce, yet occupy only 30 percent of the top jobs.

In an era when Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” sells more than one million copies and Hillary Clinton could be the next president of the United States, why is public relations lagging behind? Are we uncomfortable seeing women in previously male-dominated roles? Can we adjust our eyes and expectations to move toward gender-blind casting, hiring and voting?

Mainstream media have asked this question over the past few years — from The Atlantic (“Why Are There So Many Women in Public Relations”) to Quartz (“Public Relations Agencies Are Dominated by Women. So Why Are All Their Leaders Men?”) to Forbes (“Women in Leadership in PR”). And it’s worth asking.

Much has been made of mid-career women leaving to start families at major career inflection points. Inherent sexism has been blamed. But could it be a failure of our own creative imaginations to see ourselves, and Hillary Clinton or Kristen Wiig, in those traditionally male roles?

As Shakespeare wrote, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” It’s time that we find out. 

Kerri Allen
Kerri Allen is a senior vice president at Cohn & Wolfe, where she leads the INFUSE cross-cultural division. Her thoughts on culture and leadership have appeared in The New York Times, Diverse Issues in Higher Education and Latino Leaders.


Monique Simone Fontenot says:

Interesting article. With only just over 1 1/2 years experience as a PR professional, my take is that there are just not enough female leaders that are open to mentoring. In this day and age you have a lot of young women that are either delaying or deciding not to have children. But there are not enough women in leadership positions that are willing to take them under their wing. Women hire you, but don't try to mentor you. Strictly my own observation. Again, great article!

July 24, 2016

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