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Times have changed? IABC Research Foundation's 'The Velvet Ghetto' study revisited. (Foundation Findings).

It's been 18 years since the ABC Research Foundation published its startling study "The Velvet Ghetto: The Impact of the Increasing Percentage of Women in Public Relations and Business Communication." The 1985 report analyzed the future of the PR and business communication profession as the field was undergoing a gender majority switch from male to female. The researchers looked into the possible implications of professional communication becoming a velvet ghetto, defined as a field in which women experience drops in salary and status.

Researched and written by Carolyn Garret Cline, Ph.D., Elizabeth Lance Toth, Ph.D., Judy VanSlyke Turk, Ph.D., Lynne Masel Walters, Ph.D., Nancy Johnson, ABC, and Hank Smith, ABC, the study was conducted in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. It included surveys, in-depth interviews and focus groups, as well as analyses of data, salaries and trends in the ABC Profile studies from 1979 to 1985.

Nearly two decades later, it's encouraging to find that not all of the study's predictions have come true. Nevertheless, the economic and social barriers for women in the field are yet to be overcome.


When preparing their report, "The Velvet Ghetto" researchers accepted three trends demonstrated by earlier studies:

* Women were more likely to perceive themselves as filling the technician role rather than the managerial role.

* Women were paid substantially less than men, even when other variables are controlled.

* When other professions had gone from male-dominated to female-dominated, the professions had diminished in salary and status.

The researchers also supported two new hypotheses:

* In general, there is little overt bias on the part of management, although there may be some institutionalized salary bias based on the perceived value of public relations to the institution.

* A subtle socialization process is operating on women in public relations, resulting in their own choice of the technician role.


The public relations industry continues to be female-dominated. From 1985 to 1989, the ABC male/female member mix was at a 40/60 ratio. In 1995, ABC membership was 70 percent female, and according to ABC's Profile 2002, three out of four members are women (76 percent).

According to the 2000 U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women to total workers in PR grew from 60 percent in 1985 to 68 percent in 1993, where it peaked. Since 1993, the percentage of women in the field has been declining at approximately half a percent per year. This means that men have been entering the field at a faster pace than women since 1993, signaling that the pendulum is swinging back toward center.


When it was published, "The Velvet Ghetto" report raised fears that the influx of women into the communication profession would lead to salary declines. But the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations reports that women were paid US$73 for every dollar men received in 2000 compared to US$.726 in 1985.

The good news is that salaries have not declined. The bad news is that, despite 15-plus years of focus on gender equity in the communication workplace, women still find their paychecks lighter than those of their male counterparts.

The study also warned that the credibility of the communication profession could soon diminish as women continued to enter the profession.

In 1985, the researchers found that organizations did not perceive women as good managers, and thus tended to place female employees in tactician versus managerial roles. One reason cited was that women found it easier to balance home and work life when they had less responsibility at the office.

Two interesting management trends have come to light since 1985. In the area of access to senior management, 50 percent of respondents in "The Velvet Ghetto" said they reported directly to the CEO, whereas in ABC Profile 2002, only 35 percent said they report directly to the CEO. In 1985, 80 percent said they always had direct access to the CEO compared to only 53 percent in 2002.

Although access to senior management in the communication/PR profession has declined over the past 18 years, PR ranks higher in real wage growth than management consultants, a profession traditionally considered strategically oriented and dominated by men. Although management consultants saw annual real wage growth of approximately .6 percent, PR professionals saw annual real wage growth of 3.7 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

It appears the prediction that the feminization of the field would have a negative impact on salaries has not come to pass.


In 1985, "The Velvet Ghetto" report concluded with suggested steps the industry could take to maintain the strength and status of the profession regardless of its gender majority. These recommendations are as valid today as they were then. Moreover, these professional goals continue to be the driving force behind the services, products and tools developed by ABC and the ABC Research Foundation. The study suggested that professional communicators should constantly strive to make these objectives a reality:

* Continually demonstrate the effectiveness of communication to the bottom line.

* Maintain continuing education programs.

* Lobby for a seat at the management table and as part of the management team.

Management Consulting $29,428 $30,000 $29,380 $28,974 $28,862
Public Relations $19,766 $19,956 $22,548 $25,479 $24,627

Management Consulting $29,798 $31,001 $32,658 $32,022 $31,249
Public Relations $23,818 $22,843 $24,503 $26,081 $27,534

Management Consulting

Public Relations

Time (Years)

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2000)

Note: Table made from line graph


The IABC Research Foundation contributes to a body of knowledge that advances the practice, perception and effectiveness of communication. It serves IABC, its members and others in the profession through research on organizational communication.

"The Velvet Ghetto" was one of the first research projects to be funded by the IABC Research Foundation, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last September. This bellwether study-along with The Excellence Study, "How Communication Drives Merger Success," "Measuring Organizational Trust" and many more-is made possible by the generous support of communication professionals and corporate donors. Your support will ensure that the IABC Research Foundation can continue to provide leading-edge research for the profession. Donate online at

Heidi Taff is IABC's senior manager of public relations. She can be reached at
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Author:Taff, Heidi P.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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