chapter  1
Surface effects: public relations and the politics of gender
Pages 26

Gender conformity embedded unquestioningly as ‘common sense’ is a powerful but often unseen force within social structure that has played a central role in shaping the politics, direction and practice of public relations. Despite this, public relations scholarship and education pay limited attention to questions of gender and power, where they intersect and how the effects are expressed. This chapter uses a socio-cultural lens to understand both the dominant as well as divergent and emergent ways in which public relations as a discourse – that is, as a specific formation of language articulated to history, institutional authority and normative practices – culturally configures ‘gender’. It focuses on how socially constituted gendered identities are performed within contemporary public relations workplaces and how this anticipates cultural possibility (Butler 2008: xv). In particular, it focuses on how gender, power and sexual hierarchy are intertwined, and the ways in which fashion – as social practice – authorizes behaviour, rules and conventions to construct a set of dispositions that both imitates and promotes these cultures. These lines of inquiry engage theoretically with a view of gender, not just as a socially constructed category, but as a socially sexualized form of inequality. According to Judith Butler: ‘sexual hierarchy produces and consolidates

gender’ (2008: xii). For Catharine MacKinnon, an exploration of gender without this ‘obscures and legitimizes the way gender is imposed by force’ (MacKinnon 1987: 3). This nexus of the ‘social’ and ‘sexuality’ frames the discussion in two ways: first, in terms of the binding particularities of ‘difference’ between men and women in and through the construction of gender; and second, in terms of a wide cultural field of social processes articulated to this construction. Therefore, the ideals of gender promoted in public relations, and dynamic social processes and practices that create the ideals, will be explored as an imposition on subjects engaging with the politics of repression as a means of legitimizing and silencing discussion about sexual dominance and inequality. By questioning the configuration of women, men, bodies, representation and politics within public relations, gender is thus defined as a ‘set of free-floating attributes … performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence’

(Butler 2008: 34). Discarding fixed (essentialist) notions of ‘men’ and ‘women’, the research engages with ideas of subjects as individual ‘agents’ who interact within fluid and moving cultural fields of concealed relations of power linked to ideology and control. This trajectory allows for movement of, and the unlocking of, new understandings of public relations and its relationship to gender and the performance of social sexuality. Contemporary workplaces appear normatively different from the male-

dominated strongholds of the 1950s and 1960s: before the contraceptive pill became widely accepted, and before rights such as equal pay and equal opportunity were extensively progressed by second-wave feminists who mobilized in the 1970s to advocate ‘more nuanced and marginalised forms of disadvantage’ (Daymon and Demetrious 2010: 2). Indeed, MacKinnon argues that since the 1970s feminists have made visible a socially embedded pattern of abuse of women by men. She says, ‘In fact, it is the woman who has not been sexually abused who deviates’ (1987: 5). In accordance, MacKinnon discusses that ‘The pervasiveness of male sexual violence against women is therefore not denied, minimized, trivialized, eroticized, or excepted as marginal or episodic or placed to one side while more important matters discussed’ (1987: 5-6). Paradigmatically, and over time, views like these led to the challenging of long-held assumptions about women and men. They led to the creation of different meanings and knowledge bases and of shared understandings in society, some of which had significant and long-term legal, political, social and cultural implications. Based on this, these questions – how public relations discourse culturally constructs gendered identities, and how these are performed within diverse workplace settings – are contextually characterized by a general view that feminists have already done the ‘main work’ in relation to gender and inequality, and, as a result, today’s workplaces are qualitatively different. This view is further buttressed because social relations within them appear to be more relaxed and informal than in the past. For this reason, the chapter explores if and in what ways the constitution of gender in today’s public relations workplaces affects relations of power, and in particular if this produces and reinforces a sexualized relationship of inequality while at the same time discouraging diversity. Thus, the chapter will use an interdisciplinary lens to consider if, in recent times, gendered categories have been reconstituted by cultural conditions and what this means for hidden relations of power. While not the only way of enforcing gender inequality, sexual harassment

is a significant site for the production of meaning. According to Judith Butler, ‘sexual harassment is the paradigmatic allegory for the production of gender. Not all discrimination can be understood as harassment. The act of harassment may be one in which a person is “made” into a certain gender’ (2008: xiii). Investigating gender, power and public relations, the study considers the

public records and reporting of two cases of sexual harassment brought by public relations staff in Australia. The first occurred in 2010 when a female

publicist for a major department store chain, David Jones, began civil action against its chief executive officer; the second took place in 2012 when a male parliamentary staffer in media relations made allegations against the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The testimony and the public reporting of these two cases contain descriptions of females and males and public relations workplaces that provide an opportunity to identify indicative patterns of gender construction for analysis. Hence the rights or wrongs of cases will not be analysed, but rather the media representation of them: what is signified, what absences occur and the public understandings of gender and public relations that might result from this. The powerful assumptions around gender in and towards ‘PR’ seen through these cases suggest ways sexual hierarchies are produced and reproduced that work against equality and diversity in public relations workplaces. In particular, these investigations open up the possibilities that, far from unbinding women from repressive regimes of the past, the normative boundaries in contemporary workplaces have been redrawn around gender and this category of inequality now includes gay men.