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Inquiring (student) minds want to know.

Gertrude Stein is often remembered for the following exchange: "What is the answer? (I was silent.) In that case, what is the question?" Teachers since the days of Socrates have known the value of developing key questions - perhaps more valuable than answers in getting students to think critically about complex issues.

Professors of communication and public relations are no different. One of the best techniques I know to acquaint students with the work place is to require their evolving questions about what they read.

Short homework assignments of three questions about each journal article or textbook chapter make sure that students actually do the reading and that they make notes of areas that remain unclear to them. Their questions, in turn, lead to a lively exchange in what would otherwise be a rather dry lecture.

Students' questions have the added benefit of challenging the instructor. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: "Go down and answer up if you can ... it's not easy."

No indeed. Let me challenge the best practitioners among us to tackle these queries about salaries and sexism from an undergraduate class in the principles of public relations.

But first, a little background. During the second week of the introductory course, the students-about 50 juniors and seniors-read IABC's Profile 89 Highlights, PR Reporter's annual survey of salaries and demographics and an article by Wilma Mathews, ABC, that appeared last year in the Public Relations Review:"Women in PR."

I assigned these articles so the class would know what to expect in terms of earnings and also how their salaries might vary by level of education, geographic location, type of organization and, of course, gender. After all, three-fourths of my students are women - and that's the typical classroom in public relations in the us.

The queries raised by the readings may seem naive. Indeed, many reflect an innocence about the work place in general. However, the quality of the questions becomes apparent as one attempts to answer.

I would characterize many as did Ingrid Benis, who described the "real questions" as those that are asked most frequently and answered most inadequately. She concluded that these teasers that "make your mind start vibrating like a jackhammer" reveal their true natures slowly, reluctantly, and most often against your will.

The following teasers are representative of what the class, as a whole, asked. Each of the italicized statements is a direct quote from a student.

I found no obvious pattern of differences between questions that came from female and from male students. However, I suspect that the following might have been written by a young man in the class. It was unsigned. If women spent less energy dwelling on equal rights and dedicated more time to good ole traditional hard work, wouldn't that erase the gender gap?

Given the tone of the language, that question might have been asked at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The remaining questions, though, seem like sincere attempts to understand the disparities exposed in the assigned readings. They touch on the key points of similarities and differences between male and female practitioners, the pay gap, aspirations, strategies and balancing professional with personal goals.

Students questioned any `essential difference' between female and male practitioners.

* Do men's and women's reasons for entering the field of public relations differ? What are those reasons?

* What, if any, are the different attributes that men and women bring to the public relations field?

Students were torn between denying basic differences between male and female practitioners and embracing what they thought might be women's tendency to practice a more collaborative, cooperative type of public relations because of their purported "people" skills.

Students were concerned about the pay gap between men and women.

* Near the conclusions of Mathews' article, she stated that women need to overcome the temerity of dealing openly with financial matters before they can ever hope to overcome unequal pay treatment. "Do you feel that this is a valid reason for the pay disparity?

* Is there any evidence to suggest that women in other fields such as politics, engineering or teaching also are faced with salary discrimination?

* Do recent data present any hope for totally equal consideration for women in areas of pay, position and respectability during the next decade? If so, will it cause reverse discrimination against men in PR?

* If gender is such an important determinant of salary, what kind of reasoning do corporations give to account for the disparity in Pay ?

* Mathews suggested women should look at their worth and not just their salary. Do you think that when a woman realizes she is worthwhile she will feel any better about not earning as much as her colleague who is a man?

* Why was there a drop in median salary for public relations people in banks, insurance companies and financial services between 1987 and 1988? Is public relations becoming devalued, or could it be the influx of women?

* Why is the salary ceiling so much higher in public relations firms that in the other areas of the field?

* If women know that they are capable of doing their jobs, why don't they have the aggressiveness to ask for higher salaries or positions? Silence suggests compliance. In other words, why are women tolerant regarding the pay inequity ?

* I can't understand why more suits of discrimination aren't being won if a man and a woman of equal schooling and credentials are being paid differently.

The class could understand that salaries often depend on What the market will bear," both in terms of geography and industry. They also realized that managers tend to earn more than technicians in public relations. However, they wondered whether women had equal access to the higher ranks and, accordingly, higher earning potential.

Students reacted to the 'glass celling' that inhibits some women's promotion to the managerial ranks.

* Although many women are happy in the technician's role, women who do wish to move up to management seem to find it difficult. Why?

* Mathews quoted Australian practitioner Debarah Biber, who formerly worked in London, as saying that even fewer women are managers in England. My in a country that in some respects has greater equality between men and women are women lagging behind in public relations? After all, England has a woman prime minister and who knows if or when we will ever have a woman president?

* In which type of organization is it harder for women to advance to the managerial level.- agency, corporation, nonprofit or trade association (and why) ?

* Have there been any studies to show how successful women are in their own public relations firms? And is there a disparity in billable hours for female consultants?

* Is it harder for a woman with a master's degree or for a man without one to obtain a management position?

* When reach the management level in public relations, does advancement within the company become more competitive even among women, or do they tend to network and bond together?

Although students agreed that they did not all aspire to management themselves, they also agreed that everyone should have equal access to promotion if their education, experience and expertise would qualify them for management. The understanding that gender-along with race, age, sexual orientation and ethnicity-may inhibit one's chances for promotion was hard for many of those who believe in "meritocracy" to accept.

Students wondered about strategies they might employ to progress through their careers.

* Are there any national organizations, PR programs or seminars available to discuss, teach and train women to find solutions to existing problems?

* Outside of national organizations, are there any local support groups for professional women?

* When are women going to realize that other women are not the enemy ?

* I agree with Mathews that women should be determined to combine their resources, talents and energies to attain equal treatment in the fields of public relations and communication and that women's networking is important. But considering that the majority of employers are male, I wonder if there is any organization or group where women and men who are concerned about this issue are making efforts to change the current situation. Or is it unrealistic to involve men in the issue?

* Why aren't men helping women in their fight for equal pay and equal recognition?

* Wouldn't a network of both men and women be possible? Couldn't the women only network further polarize the already separated genders in the workplace?

* How does a person start or become part of a network?

* Mathews article said that networking and mentoring are extremely useful to work your way up to the top. How does one go about getting a mentor? Is it a process or do you just ask a respected colleague?

* What do women need to teach each other that men already seem to know?

* Should universities provide women with training in leadership to enable them to compete with their male counterparts?

* If you could list the three key steps in a career path especially for women in public relations, what would they be?

* What are the ramifications of bringing a discrimination suit against your firm or organization ? Please consider chances for victory or defeat, financial costs, potential black listing and personal and professional stress.

As part of this discussion, we weighed the relative merits of the implied solutions: mentoring, networking, self-confidence, managerial skill, consciousness-raising, awareness, negotiation, litigation, cooperation, career planning and education. We emphasized the importance of women and men working together to overcome whatever subtle patterns and practices of discrimination still may characterize the world of work.

Students expressed concern over the `superwoman' problem: Women having to choose between work and family life.

* Mathews seemed to say women must make a choice between having a good career in public relations and having a good family life. Is it impossible to have both?

* How can women, and men too for that matter, separate their personal and career goals without suffering consequences?

* We always read that women must choose between career and children. Do men ever have to make these decisions?

* What are some ways to balance a career with personal goals?

* Mathews said that women in public relations `lack focus' about their personal and professional lives. However, I think women are victims of their traditional roles in society. Do you not feel that men must play a role in helping women lessen the price women must pay to attain their professional goals? And don't you feel that this step is necessary to eliminate the feeling that women must make a trade-off between a personal and professional life?

* When are women going to stop demanding so much of themselves?

Students concluded that we should not "blame the victim,' or believe that women lag behind in terms of pay or promotion because they are less serious about their careers than are men. They bemoaned a society-rather than the field of public relations or communication per se-that continues to impose traditional sex roles on women and men despite obvious progress toward equity at work.

Finally, perhaps the toughest question of all:

* How can sex discrimination be eliminated from the work place?

My reaction to all these questions might mirror yours. At first, I wanted to offer the definitive response-to provide tidy answers to questions that were anything but. Instead, as a group, we discussed the challenges that all entry-level practitioners-men and women alike-will face. We talked about strategies for overcoming the barriers of stereotyping and socialization, in particular.

However, we concluded, like Katherine Graham in a Ms. magazine interview with Jane Howard more than 15 years ago, that, bromidic though it may sound, some questions don't have answers. The Washington Post publisher called this "a terribly difficult lesson to learn."

We may not have learn, ed how to overcome sexism in public relations. We may not have figured out the best way for women to be promoted to managerial positions or for all practitioners to be paid what they are worth regardless of gender, region or industry.

What the class and I did learn, though, was to question the realities of the work place in 1990 and whether any vestiges of discrimination must remain into the last decade of this century.

Larissa Grunig, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park, Md. and is a member of the IABC Research Foundation team: "In Search of excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management,"
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:educational outreach by the public relations profession
Author:Grunig, Larissa A.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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