The MeasHERment Interview:
Tina McCorkindale

Tina McCorkindale: We want to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our industry. Uncomfortable conversations are important to have; they make our industry stronger.

The MeasHERment Interview is pleased to welcome Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., APR, the President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), an independent research nonprofit founded in 1956. Read more about Tina here.

The goals of our MeasHERment Interview series include recognizing strong female role models and nurturing female industry leaders. These are also the goals of Mind the Gap: Women’s Leadership in Public Relations, a research program sponsored by IPR and KPMG. The research used “a series of 10 focus groups with both male and female, mid-to-senior-level leaders… to address how we can achieve better and quicker progress that empowers and moves more women into leadership positions.”

This is a two-part interview, and covers a lot of ground. In the first section we discuss with Tina the results of the Mind the Gap study. In the second we ask about her gender-related work experiences, as we typically ask of our MeasHERment Interview subjects. Click here to jump right to the second section.

Bill Paarlberg, Editor, The Measurement Advisor: Hello Tina, thanks for agreeing to our MeasHERment Interview.

Tina McCorkindale replies: Hi Bill, nice to be here.

TMA: The Institute for Public Relations just launched a new logo. That must be exciting!

TMcC: I cannot tell you how ecstatic I am. As you know, the branding of an organization is critical to its perception and we needed a logo that better reflected our mission and new brand narrative. The new branding is the culmination of work on our governance and strategy, which we began after I came on board four-and-a-half years ago.

Rob Flaherty of Ketchum and Eileen Sheil of Cleveland Clinic took the lead on the brand initiative and the process couldn’t have gone better. We had a friendly inter-agency, blind-reviewed competition among our Trustees. After tweaking the submission based on feedback, we had a new logo! Now, we can focus more on our research and building our global portfolio.

Tina McCorkindale on the Mind the Gap Research

TMA: Let’s start our discussion by examining our premise. We want to see more women in leadership roles because… well, just why, exactly? I’m a feminist from back before the term became twisted into something other than “equal opportunities and rewards for men and women.” So it seems obvious to me that there is intrinsic or moral value in gender parity in leadership. But, more practically, don’t we think that gender parity in leadership will improve the functioning of businesses and organizations? You must have data on that.

TMcC: I think your definition of feminist still applies—it’s equality for both men and women. Yes, there have been multiple studies that have supported the notion that improving diversity improves business results. We have an IPR signature study that looks at diversity, equity, and inclusion from an interdisciplinary approach and the benefits to not only business but society. The bad news is that the World Economic Forum 2018 Global Gender Gap Report predicts most of us won’t see gender-based economic parity in our lifetimes.

The purpose of our IPR-KPMG study is to explore parity in the workplace from the context of gender (shout-out to my co-authors Rebecca Rickert and Megan Dubrowski). The goal is definitely not to have fewer men in leadership. It’s more about what you pointed out in terms of parity and equal opportunity.

I saw The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah speak at a conference once and he said that old adage is not true: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Instead, you have to also give him the equipment to fish with if he doesn’t have that opportunity or access to the equipment. Equality allows equal opportunity across gender, race, LGBTQ, etc., or even the intersections of all these areas.

In February, we published the qualitative study, which helped inform our quantitative study of more than 850 PR professionals that we hope to release soon. As a preview, there are some surprising findings in there. For example, 50% of respondents said that they have experienced pay discrimination based on gender. Additionally, 43% said there are obstacles to diversity and inclusion in their company. That’s nearly half.

Our profession tends to pat ourselves on the back for making strides when it’s clear we still have a lot of work still to do. And it’s our responsibility to support one another to get to parity—it makes our profession stronger and benefits everyone.

“Our profession tends to pat ourselves on the back for making strides when it’s clear we still have a lot of work still to do.”

TMA: We know that the comms industry in general is about three-quarters women and one-quarter men. So it makes perfect sense to ask why the top leadership is 80% male. But why aren’t we asking why so few men go into comms in the first place? Is that an interesting question?

TMcC: Of course. The pipeline and making sure there is representation throughout the pipeline (along with inclusion and belonging, which are also critical) is important, but it’s not the only thing.

It’s not even just about the pipeline, but also about making sure we focus on inclusion and retention. Our internal stakeholders need to match and represent our external stakeholders. Research shows that the first promotion makes a difference and where the leadership path is most determined.

TMA: I notice that your focus groups felt that gender was a less important characteristic for leadership than individual characteristics (honesty, authenticity, etc.). Does that imply that they felt gender should even be a consideration at all? Is it valid to ask in this context: Are women better or worse leaders than men? Or shall we just assume that the question is too fraught or unanswerable or pointless and move on?

TMcC: Overall, respondents said gender is not an issue when it comes to leadership. While some did differentiate between male and female leaders, there were consistent across-the-board characteristics both men and women should have if they want to be good leaders. I don’t think the answer is too tricky as it’s about people’s perceptions. If people perceive women to be ineffective leaders (which they don’t), how can we address that and help?

In this study we wanted to identify the areas of concern. For example, do you ever notice that we offer specific leadership training for women but not for men? Is this an issue where we suggest that women have a deficiency that we need to fix in their leadership capabilities? Even top universities outside our field offer a “how to be effective leader” classes for women. Women are told to “lean in,” but is that really changing the structure of treating everyone equally?

That’s what we want to get to—we want to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our industry. Uncomfortable conversations are important to have; they make our industry stronger. Even though we only had one non-binary gender respondent, we shouldn’t neglect this audience either.

“…we want to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our industry. Uncomfortable conversations are important to have; they make our industry stronger.”

TMA: Your report noted that some men reported sexism in the c-suite, and then “…until that is solved at a macro level we are not going to see the change that needs to be done.” Do you think it is possible that a company’s atmosphere can change independently of it’s leadership? Or that leadership could change in response to those they are leading? I’m thinking here that in general in the U.S. societal change has been rapid lately, yet the highest levels of our political leadership aren’t responsible for those changes, or even embrace them. So do you think that can or could or does happen with companies as well?

TMcC: The general public expects more from companies. In the past, we’ve seen the government being a leader in effecting societal change. But now, we see more companies taking on societal issues, such as immigration and LGBTQ rights. Today, I do think companies are moving much faster than our political leaders.

Change absolutely must come from the top. Your leadership in your organization absolutely must be diverse. Otherwise, every initiative toward D & I (Diversity and Inclusion) is just lip service. I was having a conversation with an agency who was telling me about their excellent D & I programs. I replied, “But all your leadership except one (of 12) are Caucasian men.” And she replied, “Well, we did just add Penelope.” That’s not her real name, by the way.

I think change can happen in two ways. One, leadership must recognize the important of D, E, and I (what is the difference between D & I and D, E and I?) in the executive ranks of the organization and make executive-level changes. Second, employees should hold their employers accountable.

“Change absolutely must come from the top. Your leadership in your organization absolutely must be diverse. Otherwise, every initiative toward D & I is just lip service.”

TMA: The study deals with mid- and upper-level men and women. Why did you leave out lower level employees? If there is bias toward encouraging or grooming men for leadership, then isn’t it likely to appear with entry level employees, too?

TMcC: One of the reasons we looked at mid to senior-level respondents is because we wanted our respondents to have a certain amount of time working in public relations and have experienced opportunities for promotion. What we have also seen anecdotally is that as you move up in the ranks, you typically have more responsibility in your professional life while trying to fit it all into your personal life. I would say that a lot of the issues are happening at more of the mid and upper levels than entry levels. I also think that the Gen Zers who are entering into the profession are more cognizant of D, E, and I in the workforce.

TMA: It’s common to hear that men just don’t notice bias against women, whereas women do. Your research found this male bias blindness as well.

TMcC: There’s a great study called “Fixing the Flawed Approach to Diversity” by Boston Consulting Group that divides respondents into people of color, women, and LGBTQ. Yes, they did find that there is a degree of male blindness, but there are also people who realize that we need to do better. Some of the best champions in our field are men. In fact, a couple of the individuals who spoke about the sexist C-suite were male.

Men must be on board to champion the cause for equality. One of the respondents in our survey said that the people who are affected by inequality should be the ones who do something about it, not those who aren’t involved. That’s the wrong attitude. We all need to do something about it. This is not a cause just for women. It’s the same with people of color. It’s a cause for us all.

There’s another great book I recommend called, “Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women” and I strongly believe that we need this. I’ve had a couple excellent mentors who were men and some of my closest friends in the profession are men—they all champion equality and help our profession to be more inclusive.

A 2019 LeanIn.Org survey found 60 percent of male managers said they are uncomfortable doing workplace activities such as mentoring, socializing, or having one-on-one meetings with women. Treating women differently than men in social interactions has an impact on the success of women in the workplace, because you get less exposure and less opportunity. One of my friends in a different field says he can’t be alone in a room, per company policy, with someone of the opposite sex. So he has to stand outside the conference room until someone else joins them. That is absolutely ridiculous. Think about the missed conversations and socializations, not to mention the impact from this type of sex segregation.

“Men must be on board to champion the cause for equality… This is not a cause just for women. It’s the same with people of color. It’s a cause for us all.”

TMA: The report’s “Call to Action” includes 5 points that, well, with respect, we’ve heard many times before. To review for our readers, they are:

  1. Gender equity is not just a cause for women, but for men too.
  2. Address potential pay gaps
  3. Leaders must prioritize action
  4. Take care of your and other’s careers.
  5. Review policies and make organizational change

Is there anything significantly new or important here? As one of your respondents said, maybe it’s a matter of self-awareness, and this study is one way for the industry to achieve that?

TMcC: Yes, these are the calls for the first part of our study and we will have more in the second phase. I would like to say that everyone is aware in our industry and has taken action against these calls, but they’re not. In terms of our study, nearly all organizations offer maternity leave, but only slightly more than half offer paternity leave. People typically have children when they are in an advancement trajectory in their careers. Not giving equal time off sends a message. Therefore, all organizations should have family leave for both parents. We also see more and more professionals in our field who are caretakers for other family members in the profession. All these policies affect talent recruitment and retention.

Fifty percent of our respondents say they’ve experienced pay discrimination based on gender and 36 percent believe men make a higher salary than women in a similar cohort. So while “addressing potential pay gaps” may seem obvious, people have to take action. Leaders can sit down now and make that change today. Policy changes can happen now too. Leaders must be held accountable. Some companies are doing this, but others are not.

“…while “addressing potential pay gaps” may seem obvious, people have to take action. Leaders can sit down now and make that change today. Policy changes can happen now too. Leaders must be held accountable.”

TMA: Many of your respondents imply that the steps necessary to achieve leadership roles are not obviously stated, or are flexible, or biased, or depend on the assistance of someone else (mentoring). Which implies that they find no obvious or generally agreed-upon path of progress to leadership. Is this state of affairs sexism, hidden or embedded in organizational behavior?

TMcC: I’m hoping we can pull some of this out. We won’t have a causal relationship, but there are considerations and steps we can all take.

We all like to think that we are unbiased, but research shows that is not the case. One great study that I’m sure many have heard of is of is the implementation of blind auditions in symphony orchestras. These blind auditions, where musicians play behind a screen, have increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected by 30 percent. Now granted, this was 20 years ago, but some of the learnings from this study can be applied elsewhere: how are we making the promotion and leadership tract more “blind reviewed”? Studies have found this technique was especially effective for racially-diverse candidates.

“We all like to think that we are unbiased, but research shows that is not the case.”

Ensuring evaluation criteria is both objective and subjective is critical. There’s a great Hidden Brain (NPR) podcast by Shankar Vedantam that outlines implicit bias and the results are fascinating, especially when it comes to hiring and promotion. It’s something that we all should listen to.

Tina McCorkindale on her personal experiences in the communications and measurement industry

TMA: Most interviews of this sort, including our MeasHERment Interview series, begin with questions about hobbies or pets or favorite books. But after you and I have just discussed the Mind the Gap research, those topics seem way too trite, and a waste of a good opportunity. After all, who better to ask about the difficulties of becoming a female leader in comms than a female leader in comms who does research on becoming a female leader in comms?

So, I’d like to jump right in and ask you to personally reflect on some of the effects indicated in the research we discussed above. Have you found or experienced any issues related to work-life balance, or being criticized when you are assertive or decisive, or anything else in your own career? How did you handle them?

TMcC: It’s really work-life fit and how we merge it all together—it’s an interwoven mess. I have three kids and I travel a lot—and I’m not alone when I say it’s tough. Many of my Trustees travel a lot as well. My husband also has a big position in Seattle so he’s facing some of the same challenges.

Our industry, though, has a serious issue with work-life fit. Three-quarters of our respondents said they often work after hours. More than 50 percent said their supervisor expects them to check their email on vacation. We need to do better.

“It’s really work-life fit and how we merge it all together—it’s an interwoven mess. I have three kids and I travel a lot—and I’m not alone when I say it’s tough.”

I try not to get overly stressed, because I don’t want to stress out my team. Plus, there are some things you just can’t control so you just have to go with the flow. But we have to be able to relax and recharge.

Have I had people criticize me when I am assertive or decisive? Yes, I was told once early in my tenure to not be too direct. Not to toot my own horn, but I can hold my own; if someone is giving me a hard time, I have no problem returning it. I use humor a lot and I’m pretty quick-witted.

I believe people value my opinion. Both men and women ask for my advice. It didn’t start out that way when I took on the CEO role. But now I’m surrounded by such a wonderful group of Trustees and my amazing executive team. I’ve been really lucky compared to some of my counterparts.

“Have I had people criticize me when I am assertive or decisive? Yes… Not to toot my own horn, but I can hold my own; if someone is giving me a hard time, I have no problem returning it.”

TMA: We talked above about how the research found that some mid-level women did not want to make sacrifices they felt were necessary to become leaders. Well, how about you? What do you have to say about the sacrifices necessary to become a leader?

TMcC: I do think I’ve made sacrifices in my personal life. I definitely make it to all the important events for my kids and I try to plan accordingly. I’m not going to be away for any of my kids’ birthdays or graduations. When I’m home I try to go on their field trips or pick them up from school. Plus, my kids are independent and resilient. I’m starting to take them with me on trips when I present internationally so that gives them an important and diverse perspective. I want them to figure things out for themselves just like my parents did for me growing up.

I also set boundaries at certain times in my professional life. No, I’m not going to step out of my son’s performance, and I’m not going to talk to you on Christmas Eve. But I’m very direct about this, and I would never ask my employees to do that either.

But I love my job. I love meeting with people and I love what I do at IPR. I love working. I love the challenges. I like being always on the go and filling every moment of my day. It’s just who I am as a person. I thrive that way. I know I don’t need eight hours of sleep. I just looked at my Fitbit yesterday and I’ve only slept more than 8 hours one day this year, but I’m fine with that. I know I have to exercise almost every day. I know I have to say “no” sometimes. But I’m very good at prioritizing and I’m a GSD person (get stuff done – except substitute a different word for “stuff” ?).

I’m happier when I’m working and I know my kids can see that. We all just have to do the best job we can with what we have. My advice to others is, “You do you, whatever that looks like.”

But, we all have only a limited time to make a difference on this planet. I want to take advantage of the time I do have by having a personal and professional life that I love. And that’s not for everyone. In our study, about one in five individuals said they did not want to have a more senior role in their organization. We all have to do what works best for us.

“I’m happier when I’m working and I know my kids can see that. We all just have to do the best job we can with what we have. My advice to others is, ‘You do you, whatever that looks like.’ ”

TMA: Three years ago, in our last interview, you said, “Stop saying you are in PR because you’re not good at math. This comment does our field a tremendous disservice.” That was not only a great piece of advice, but also a bit of commentary about the state of PR and measurement. So how about now? Have things changed?

TMcC: I still say the same thing. We’re doing better, but yes, stop saying that. ?

TMA: At the time you started studying or working in measurement in particular, did you feel you were doing any sort of great or unusual thing because of your gender? Was it unusual for a woman to be in that role?

TMcC: No, I don’t think so. In my measurement career, we had a mix and for me, my analyst and engineering colleagues were primarily female.

TMA: Have you experienced any particular help or hindrance during your career because of your gender?

TMcC: It’s a mix. I have a lot of stories I could tell. I’ve had situations where I was appointed to something as the token female (and I know this because I was told this specifically).

Being how I am as a leader and earning those stripes definitely did not happen overnight. I worked really hard. Of course, I read “The Confidence Code” and “Lean In” (not a fan of the last one), as I had to figure out what type of leader I wanted to be. I’m definitely more comfortable with who I am today.

TMA: Thanks very much for talking with us Tina!

TMcC: You are very welcome Bill.

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