A discussion with Dr. Bey-Ling Sha: Future professionals’ perceptions of work, life, and gender issues in public relations
By Sofia Alexandra Valenzuela, Terika Lewis, Dakota MacDonald, and Carolina Tagle

Dr. Bey-Ling Sha

We had an opportunity to talk to Dean Sha about her research “Future professionals’ perceptions of work, life, and gender issues in public relations.” The study was a census gathered through the Public Relations Student Society of America that looked at what public relations students felt were gender issues in the field. The researchers found that there was a significant difference in how men and women viewed gender equity in promotion, work-life balance and salaries. 

Dean Sha felt there was a disproportionate amount of women compared to men in the PR and advertising fields. Despite this, women do not get paid the same or promoted at the same rate as men in the field. Sha wanted to do research on whether students knew of the problems and their attitudes towards the problems. 

Members of PRSSA were contacted through their email addresses to participate in this study. The census asked for 6,284 students nationwide to participate but only 566 responded for a response rate of 9.05%. The questionnaire was sent twice in the spring; one of which was a solicitation. A census tries to get information from everyone in the population. In replicating this study, a simple survey would not suffice to generalize the data. The census started from mid-May when students are studying for finals and looking for job opportunities. A census with a low response rate still has enough reach to run a good amount of data analysis. 

Collecting data through an organization was very difficult. Membership lists can be inaccurate due to not being updated or student emails not being utilized by recent graduates. Sha and Toth also found it hard to get permission to use the PRSSA membership list. They had to present the survey to the national PRSSA board to gain permission. Organizations are often protective of their memberships lists because they don’t want members to be bombarded with research requests. Fortunately, Dr. Toth and Dr. Sha both did lots of volunteer work and proved they could be trusted. 

The research showed that there was a correlation between sex and work-life balance. While it was weak, there was a significant correlation between sex and whether the respondent expected to have their career be interrupted. Sha guesses the reason for the weak correlation was that the people surveyed are traditional-aged college students who don’t think about career breaks. Most 20-21 year olds aren’t thinking about if their children will interrupt their work life. 

Dean Sha expects work-life integration to become more emphasized in future workforces. In the middle of this pandemic, everyone is going through work life integration because working from home doesn’t allow for a separation between work life from “real life”. Work-life integration can help future PR professionals in their future practice. Especially right now, every company is trying to figure things out and help their employees adjust to new protocols. The way companies communicate to their employees are the ones trained in public relations. Public relations is about building relationships with publics and one of those publics are employees. Employee communication and relations is an upwards trend currently which makes studying work-life integration important.

Another factor the study looked at was salary. The study found that female students perceived that they will receive lower salaries than men whereas male students perceived them to be more equal. The findings suggest that the differences in perceptions will continue in the public relations field. The findings also suggest that to change these perceptions in the feminized field needs to start early by preparing public relations students in university. Exposing students to more research-based information on gender and women in public relations will help PR students become familiar with issues in the field. This would also teach them how to deal with these problems as they arise for internships or entry-level positions.

Sha and Toth expected Gen Y public relations students would have more positive expectations on gender equity in the workplace but the findings suggest the societal values are still present. Currently, there is research shown that these societal values are still present nearly ten years later. In a world where everyone works for home, there is a trend of women dropping out of the workforce to take care of their children. COVID-19 forced schools and work to become virtual. More women than men have quit their jobs to take care of their families in the new shift to a virtual world. Women in single-family and/or heterosexual families are the ones to take care of their children and play an important part in their education This phenomena suggests that even with advancements in gender equity in the workforce, there is still a social expectation that women are the primary care in the home. 

A summary of our discussion with Dean Sha.

Our group asked Dean Sha about how to properly replicate this research. A factor Sha would look at in present times would be to look at respondents age in terms of generational cohort. The idea of a modern college student is greatly different than past generations. When this research was done in 2002, the college student population was not as diverse in age groups as they are now. A traditional college student is someone who attended college straight out of high school, 18, and only took four years to graduate, 21-23. Since then, colleges and universities have seen a rise in “non-traditional or returning” students because of circumstances such as the GI bill and people returning from the military. People are also encouraged to come back and finish degrees that they may have had to drop out of or start college at an older age. Students are also not finishing or graduating in four years because many students work and attend college. Colleges are seeing fewer traditionally aged college students in comparison to ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. 

To properly look at generations, Dean Sha told us to ask for birth year instead of age. Asking for birth year eliminates the possibility of a person lying about their age and makes it easier to divide by generations when doing data analysis at the end. We would have to use social science data to divide students from millennials and Gen-Z. Dean Sha also brings up that many older people believe millennials are the ones attending college when the reality is most traditional students attending are Gen-Z and the millenials are staff teaching them. 

A reason to do research into Gen-Z is to see Gen-Z’s expectations, since they are the next generation entering the workforce. Gen-Z grew up with major strides in gender equity. Movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp arose while Gen-Z grew up which shaped their worldview. Other movements such as gay marriage becoming legalized in the United States in 2015 and the Black Lives Matter movement becoming popularized in 2012 and rebooting in the summer of 2020 also reveals that Gen-Z is an increasingly embracing equity in all forms. 

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