Dr. Nilanjana R. Bardhan is a professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC). Nilanjana is a member of the board of advisors for the Plank Center.
Please summarize your professional career and its high and low points. (How did you work your way up the ladder? What have you learned along the way? What factors most contributed to your success?)
I am a PR educator. My journey began in India, my birth country. I did some work in advertising/PR in India in the early 1990s. This work whetted my appetite for more knowledge and experience. In 1992, I joined the MA program in PR/Adv. at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. I also took coursework in international/intercultural communication. I worked part-time as a PR assistant at the OU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine and for Office of Lifelong Learning for four years. After my MA, I followed my passion for teaching and research and completed a Ph.D.
I joined Southern Illinois University as a PR and intercultural communication educator in 1998. Over the last 21 years, I have become tenured and achieved the rank of full professor. I thoroughly enjoy what I do, and I have a passion for combining PR education with diversity, inclusion and intercultural learning. I feel fortunate for all the support I have received from colleagues and students in the successes I have achieved.
According to The Holmes Report, women make up about 70% of the PR workforce, but they only hold about 30% of the top positions in the industry. Why do you think there is a shortage of women leaders in PR? What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
While this gender imbalance in senior leadership is certainly a problem in the PR industry, it is also reflective if larger trends in corporate America. All we have to do is look at the number of Fortune 500 Company CEOs who are women compared to the number of women in the workforce. More specifically in the field of PR, which used to be dominated by men in the first half of the last century, the perception that women are better at doing the PR work needed below the managerial levels has led to the imbalance we see. Outdated perceptions need to change.
What can organizations (and the industry as a whole) do to prepare women for top leadership positions? What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in leadership?
I don’t think women need any special training to prepare for leadership positions. They need the same kinds of access to mentorship, support from senior leadership and inclusion that men tend to receive more often in order to make it to senior leadership positions. What is most needed is change in attitude, structural changes and a recognition that the current almost homogeneous make-up up of PR leadership (white/male) needs to diversify if the industry is to stay current with increasing diversity and changes in society (not just the US but the world).
As a role model for women, what advice do you have for women interested in a career in public relations?
Do not be discouraged by the fact that it’s currently hard to rise through the ranks. Stay focused on the success stories and find good mentors and allies. Work hard, lead like a woman, question imbalance, be fair to those around you and be personally be involved in change initiatives.
What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
It is okay to say one doesn’t know everything but that one is willing to have an open mind and keep learning. I think people respect that. I know I respect that in others.
What are the three ways you inspire and encourage teamwork among your team?
- Lead by example
- Try to empower those around me
- Develop the ability and humility to learn from failures
Was there a pivotal moment in your career when you knew you were empowering those around you?
I would not say there was one pivotal moment that comes to mind – it was more like a time period. I was the faculty adviser for our SIU’s PRSSA chapter for 10 years and during these years, I was aware that I was a role model for many young women students of color who were thinking of a career in PR. In me they saw a possibility, and I felt it was my responsibility to encourage them and guide them towards success.
With the myriad of industry changes, what inspires you to stay motivated and encouraged?
The attitude and belief that one never stops learning. I believe that I should never stop learning from my environment and those around me on how to continuously improve my leadership and teaching skills/philosophy. This is what keeps me motivated.
What question or topic have you not been asked that you want to address?
Women in PR are not a homogeneous group. Women themselves are very diverse, and women need to support each other across other differences (e.g., ethnicity/race, nationality, sexuality, religion and so on.
Posted: March 7, 2019
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