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Best Master’s Thesis Award Winner Karen Robayo Sanchez on Gender Equity Differences in PR in North America and Latin America

Karen Robayo Sanchez, M.A., winner of the 2022 Orangefiery’s Best Master’s Thesis Award, is currently a Ph.D. student in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She earned a master’s degree, also from the University of Georgia, with her thesis titled “Gender Equality in Public Relations and Communication: A Comprehensive Study to Bridge the Knowledge Between North America and Latin America.” Orangefiery CEO, Mike Kuczkowski, spoke with Karen about her experiences and her award-winning thesis on gender equality differences between North America and Latin America. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Q: What got you interested in public relations as an industry?

A: I’m originally from Columbia, where I got a degree in Mass Media and Journalism at Universidad Central de Colombia, in Bogotá, Colombia. When I completed the degree, I started working in the Department of Public Relations in the administration of Columbian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos Calderón. President Santos was a great guy to work for. He had a huge agenda and I got to work on a TV program called Presidential Week. It was really interesting work because I got to develop capsules for the program around all facets of his agenda – politics, arts, exports, international visits and experts – for the Colombian people. I got such a great experience and I got to meet so many incredible people. It was an exciting and demanding public relations experience. I came to the US to study the English language and then joined Grady College for my master’s degree. As a small child, I had wanted to study medicine, but it was not something that fit me as an adult. Public relations allowed me to still work toward my goals of leading and making my country better in a way that fit me. Working in public relations allows me to engage as an insider with governments, agencies, and multi-national corporations, instead of working as an outsider as a journalist.


Q: This is such a unique and incredible set of experiences. And it’s interesting how your work with the Columbian government and your desire to be an “insider” who makes changes in the world play out in your thesis. Could you tell us a bit about your topic and findings?

A: Gender equality has been a passion of mine for years, and I had a great opportunity come from working with my advisor, Dr. Juan Meng. She is the Director of the North American Communication Monitor, and she shared a set of survey questions that are asked by the publication. Since I’m Columbian, she helped me connect with the Latin American Communication Monitor and we were able to ask the same survey questions across two populations of practitioners.

To me, the most interesting findings were the differences between the regions. For instance, in Latin America, most positions of leadership in public relations were held by women, but in North America, most of the positions of leadership were held by men. Latin America is so often considered a “developing” market for public relations; it is seen as “behind” the US. Why is a “developing” country so far ahead of a “developed” country on gender equity? We hypothesized that this is because PR in the US is a major industry with comparative power. At the same time, PR is still relatively small, often just one department within a larger organization, in Latin America – there is not enough power in Latin American PR, so women can rise to leadership positions. We would have to investigate further to make this anything but a hypothesis, but that is currently our thought.


Q: From your perspective based on this work, what is one tangible thing that industry professionals should do to help bridge the gender equity gap in PR and communications?

A: We need to strive for and talk openly about balance. For instance, if the workforce is 70% female, we should strive for our leadership to be 70% female. And this cannot happen without open conversations and fair policies. We have to talk about gender balance in our organizations. We have to examine our policies in our departments for equity. And we need to be careful about what unfair politics might be impacting our decisions when it comes to advancement. Talking about all these issues in our organizations is important – organizations and the practitioners who lead them need to know about gender equity principles and practices. Then current leaders need to help young practitioners learn and ensure they have role models. That opportunity for mentorship is really important – having that real-world experience and support to give you a hand when you need it is really important.


Q: Thank you so much for doing this research. Could you tell us a bit about what is next for you?

A: I’m now working on my Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. I’m going through my courses now, teaching and working on some more fun research projects. I will continue working on topics related to gender equality and inequality, and I’m very interested in working with mixed methods approaches to research. I also hope to work with more intersectional problems that relate to gender as well.


The Orangefiery Best Master’s Thesis Award is presented each year to one outstanding MA student. The 2023 award cycle is accepting nominations until May 5th.


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