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It Pays to Mobilize Research Early! Report on Early Findings of SCC Research on Narratives of Pioneering Women in Public Relations in Canada

December 15, 2016
Julia Jahansoozi and Virginia McKendry

On Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, we were gifted with the opportunity of presenting a research webinar for the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), where we introduced initial findings of our pilot study entitled “Narratives of Pioneering Women in Public Relations in Canada.” In this post, we share more about this exciting research collaboration of ours that is currently brewing in RRU’s School of Communication and Culture, and how the public relations professional community is helping us refine and define our research.

It all began last year, with Julia noticing a body of scholarship in critical gender studies of public relations taking shape. She was particularly interested in research coming out of Australia and European countries and we wondered if there was anything like that being done for Canada’s PR research community. Marshaling Julia’s strengths as a PR academic and Virginia’s expertise in gender studies and historiography, we began envisioning a long-term research study that would allow us to contribute a Canadian angle to the growing body of gender and public relations studies, as well with the hope that our work would also help to bolster the work Canadian scholars are doing on the history of public relations in Canada. While there has been quite a lot of quantitative research about women and PR, it has tended to focus on issues like the wage gap, or the feminization of the profession; our innovation was to bring a highly qualitative lens to our research, to find out how women experience their careers and to gain their perspective on how and if gender has impacted their choices and experience.

We used internal professional development funding to get started with a pilot study focused on women working on Vancouver Island, using our networks and snowball sampling to identify and interview seven women who fit our criteria. We wanted to talk to senior women in the profession, those pioneering PR women practitioners who had begun their career when the profession was still in its infancy and who themselves have contributed to the formation of communication as a profession. That meant we were interested in their lived experience, so we conducted qualitative interviews that would help us learn about the following:

• Their childhoods, dining room conversations, first jobs, hobbies
• What drew them into the field, given how there were no educational pathways or jobs called PR when they started out?
• Once they were “in” roles that they now recognize as their first PR job, how did they find their way to where they are now?
• Did they have mentors, who supported them, where were the blockages or struggles?

We also wanted to know if any of the women we interviewed ever experience “imposter syndrome”, given the overwhelming research that shows how so many professional women from all disciplines put their success down to sheer luck, always secretly worried they might be discovered as frauds. We were curious to find out if these highly accomplished, talented PR women had ever felt this way.

Each woman generously gave us about two hours of her time, providing highly detailed stories that offer a palpable sense of what it has taken to make a professional career and what it has meant to her. When we had completed the seventh interview, we had around over 100 pages of transcribed interview data, which we then submitted to an interpretive process called data explicitation. Instead of “slicing and dicing” the stories into unrelated parts, we summarized the professional life stories, identified themes in each, and then looked across each of the themed stories to see if we could detect any patterns. This process allowed us to respect the organic nature of each woman’s career flow, and to note shared themes as well as individual differences.

The data explicitation has surfaced a number of themes. Thus far, we have found four definitive themes:
• Entry point: None of our interviewees had initially thought of having a PR career. However, all had strengths as strong readers and writers, were interested in people, and valued ethics. Our interviewees found their way into PR via using their transferable skill sets
• Mentoring: With some exceptions, our interviewees’ mentors tended to be powerful men that encouraged these women to take chances, believe in themselves, and helped them to see the value that they were adding with what they were doing. All of the women we interviewed cited their CPRS network for peer mentoring at some point in their career.
• Education: Our interviewees recognized that education was at the core for career oriented practitioners and having reflective and critical thinkers was crucial for the practice. There was an awareness that a real contribution could be made by fostering greater understanding within organizations, amongst publics/stakeholders in understanding public relations was strategic and not just about writing news releases.
• Imposter syndrome: Barring one, all our interviewees related to having Imposter Syndrome. These highly competent and talented women often had feelings of inadequacy even when the reality was they were highly effective in their roles. Imposter syndrome is usually linked to high achievers, who feel they somehow were lucky and often feel like frauds.

With the pilot study showing such promising outputs, we knew we wanted to use it as a launching pad for a wider national study that would allow us to discover how senior women professionals in various regional communities of practice have experience their careers, and to ask similar questions of senior men, and senior Indigenous PR professionals. At the same time, we wondered if others would be just as thrilled and see the value we were seeing. Would other academics be intrigued? What would the professional community have to say about our work, and would they help us see ways to use it to make a difference to public relations education or practice?

To find out if we were on the right track and solicit ideas for other questions we could be asking, we reached out to our CPRS-VI (Vancouver Island) chapter contacts, and they immediately offered two opportunities to do a test-drive our research. First, we were able to share our initial findings with senior undergraduate students at Camosun College, to see how interesting this might be to young people starting out in the profession, and we found keen interest there, particularly around mentoring and imposter syndrome. CPRS also gave us space to present these early findings to the national membership, and we were pleased to see a great turnout from there from PR practitioners and academics, who offered more questions and ideas for the research. This input has enhanced the more thorough analysis we’ll be reporting on at the national CPRS conference in Kelowna, in May 2017. It will also help us refine the grant proposal we are writing to support a national study that allows us to gain insights from senior PR women, men and Indigenous professionals across the country and its diverse communities of practice.

We suspected and know now how valuable it was to get the input of the people this research is meant to serve, and to get it early. It is so exciting for us to see students, accomplished practitioners, researchers, educators, associations interested in what we are doing and providing help, recommendations, critique, potential participant contacts across the country, and ideas for applying our findings in practical ways. Thanks to the generous help of our participants and the CPRS members helping us refine our questions and envision application of our results, we are more certain than ever that research into gender and public relations practice in Canada is wanted and needed.

This is the first of what we hope will be many reports on our Narratives of Pioneering Women in Public Relations in Canada research. If our readers have anything they want to contribute to support this research as we move forward, we welcome your input!