feminisation of HR

The Feminisation of HR

Does the feminisation of HR have a downside?

The feminisation of HR has been creeping up on us for years. I was recently involved in an executive search for an upper level middle management HR position. The European VP asked me to try to produce a gender balanced short list. Now, this is not what you are thinking! What she wanted in this case was to try to balance her team which is currently composed of 90% women, to include some men. For many searches I struggle to find women at certain levels and on this one it was men who were in scarce supply.

Female dominance

In recent studies carried out in the US, HR is personified by a 47 year old white woman! In the UK according to research carried out by XpertHR,  75% of the HR function is female. This substantiates what we all imagine to be correct, following an even a cursory glance at any company’s organogram or telephone directory.

In the UK at entry-level, 86% of post holders in the HR profession are female. This percentage drops to 42.5% at director level.  In the US the overall percentages are pretty much the same, women occupy two-thirds of the HR executive positions.

Transition of the function

I started my own career in HR, in the heavily unionised steel industry where more often than not I was the only female in any meeting and men formally objected not just to me being there, but any woman at all. During the last 25 years, there has been a significant evolution and today, HR is quite often one of the most predominantly female functions in many organizations. Over the years we have seen a gradual feminisation of the HR function.

This is part of a general shift over time from production to knowledge based economies and a  functional evolution of the discipline leading to what Michele Mees, author of the Balanced Leader, describes as the ” unsuccessful re-branding ” of the function.

Back in my day, when industrial/employee relations, payroll, employee administration and recruitment were the primary time consumers, we have seen a move of the function into internal consulting services: leadership coaching, assessment and development. The more transactional sides of the function have either been taken over by software or are outsourced, including compensation, records and recruitment services. This leaves aspects of the function that seem to be more attractive to women, where their “people skills” are more highly valued. XPertHR are observing a a slight levelling out of gender within the function after the all time high figure in 2007.

Career Gateway

At one time, the HR function certainly provided a great career gateway for entry-level women to embark upon a corporate career compared to other functions, such as finance or sales. According to CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) in their report “Beyond the Glass Ceiling” female members of their organisations are 6 times less likely to become CFO or Finance Director than their male counterparts.

However, unfortunately, one of the other comments made about many organisations is that HR lacks teeth. With no P and L responsibilities, in many companies the function is relegated to a non-executive position, with barely lip service paid to its contribution.

Re-cycled CEOs

Gurprriet Singh suggests in his post CEO HR I am fed up of seeing tons of research and surveys saying that the MOST important differentiator for an organization is talent and culture. And then not see organizations deploy their best resources to this function.” He calls for retiring CEOs to be recycled as HR Heads to give the function some much-needed teeth.

As the majority of CEOs are male, does he believe this will make a difference?

A male view

I posed the same question to Tim Douglas International HR Director, CSM “Today I asked my team, who are all female. Their view is HR is seen to be about providing support and caring, although they recognise it requires hard-nosed decisions and sometimes very unpleasant ones. They suggest it’s seen to be back to the original ‘welfare’ roots of personnel, and definitely not associated with being influential in big business decisions, hence fewer man are attracted to it. However they also pointed out that HR teams led by men were often more ‘dynamic’ and ‘engaged with business decisions’ and often taken more seriously by leaders

A female view

Tim’s experience of a male voice carrying greater weight is re-enforced by Michele “I only recently heard a woman (head of legal department and in charge of gender diversity project) say she had been trying to get the gender balance topic on the management agenda for over a year, without success. She then got back up from a male colleague, who joined her gender balance team, and asked him to put it on the agenda. Guess what: he only had to ask once. This is in my view a demonstration of (hidden) stereotyping by a male management team.”

She would also support Tim and Gurprriet saying ” HR people and departments are often very process driven and they do not come across as being flexible, agile, quickly to respond to market changes (as sales and marketing must be for instance). HR people are not always keen to ‘dive into’ the business, I think this is needed to build up credibility with business leaders (today I heard the remark from an HR manager that HR people seldom network to other than HR events, that they do not take MBA courses, or any other managerial courses apart from their own specialist field) and apparently HR is still a snug comfort zone to be in

Correcting the balance

Companies with masculine dominated cultures (most perhaps?) can successfully recruit women into the HR function without disturbing the masculine order. HR is perceived as “soft”, while sales and finance are “tough”. This way stereotyping is continued and gender roles are confirmed. It seems that tough decisions or actions performed by an HR woman, will not be perceived as tough and decisive as if they were performed by a man.

Culturally women are expected to exhibit softer skills, while men are expected to be more decisive. The criteria for evaluation is such that even when women are decisive they are not taken seriously, or get caught up in that old double bind as being too “aggressive”.

So until HR qualifications include, and mandate, a solid business base, rather than simply focusing on functional expertise and qualifications, then this situation is likely to be perpetuated.

What other solutions could there be? What do you think?

If your organisation need support building gender balanced teams get in touch NOW!

19 thoughts on “The Feminisation of HR

  1. gurprrietsiingh

    Hi Dorothy,
    Very well written and has caused me to reflect. Let me give you a brief perspective on HR. Unlike the US and UK, in India HR is largely led and staffed by men.

    However, the feminization of the Function could be true, in a different context. HR is largely seen as a service function in most organizations, and is treated much the same way that women once were. Do what you’re told. Keep house. Let us earn the money and take care of the difficult stuff. You keep people warm and fuzzy and well fed. If someone has a problem, bring it to us, we will see what we can do. Strike a chord?

    Yes, there are some HR heads who have brought a business and strategic function. They are valued and have a strong voice at the board. However, they are few and far between. As Wayne Brockbank, HR guru often says, “HR folks need a solid business education and business experience before they get into HR”

    Hope this helps, Dorothy!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Gurprriet – yes it does. Thanks for your excellent comment. So instead of HR being part of the business driving process it’s become the department of warm and fuzzy caring! So when you suggested CEOs should spend time there – de facto, that would would be men! So the question still remains -what will change that?

  2. Tim Douglas

    I believe Gurprriet hits the nail on the head in quoting Brockbank. The issue is the lack of business training in HR. When business leaders move in to lead HR, you get an entirely new dynamic. When left to career HR professionals with HR-oriented qualifications, they often can’t impose their view on their leadership colleagues because too often their solutions are not wrought from the business challenges. Instead they are case studies in HR ‘Best Practise’, looking for a business problem to solve. When more women get an equal chance to lead some of the operational functions, I’m sure they’ll bring a more commercial focus to their subsequent leadership of HR.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Tim – thanks so much for your comment and sage words! So do you think women need to have experience in other key functions before moving to HR, or it would be sufficient to have general business training in addition to functional skills?

  3. Wendy Mason

    Reading this I looked back at my own changes in attitude to HR over the years. At one point I worked around NHS HR at a national level when NHS Pay Negotiations were all handled centrally. It could be rough tough and hard to do. I then led on a number of change initiatives that involved changing terms and conditions for groups of staff – again very hard edged. You couldn’t do the work without some understanding of business itself. Later as a general manager handling outsourcing and TUPE, I worked with HR colleagues who had a clear understanding of what the business was about and what it needed – it was clear the business came first in their minds.
    My more recent experience has been a little different, the last out-sourcing exercise I worked with, the HR Department seemed out on a limb, detached and out of touch.
    For me, it seems to be as much about attitude as experience. I wonder how much of this stems from the academic training of HR professionals as well as a lack of direct business experience? I suspect getting your hands dirty with operational management isn’t necessarily seen as a glamorous prospect by many aspirant HR professionals.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Wendy for great comment. My own experince in HR is that it has always been out on a limb and generally looked down upon because it doesn’t produce anything, makes rules and is generally blamed by line managers for employees being denied anything. However, at one time when I wasa trainee, all HR personnel were rotated throughout the company and had some exposure to production and other areas..

      It’s hard to say if this situation has deteriorated further with the feminisation of the function – but no doubt the lack of business skills and understanding doesn’t help and could be easily addressed by professional bodies and employers.

  4. Anne Perschel

    Dame Dorothy – Another terrific piece with useful citations as well.

    It occurred to me, while reading, that the movement from transactional HR to relational HR is both a cause and a result of more women in the function. Technology helps as well. Hale the discovery of birth control pill, along with the bicycle, as opening the gates to more freedom for women.

    About hard core business skills for HR: Absolutely needed. But as Michlle Mees’ example points out, women are often not heard for their business voice even when they speak in one. I too find men are more convinced about the need for gender balance when it is another man who speaks the message. And I am taking full advantage of that reality by tapping my male collaborators to speak up and providing a platform for them to do so.

    Let’s get over it and on with it.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Anne – yes that’s a good point. There maybe many business focused women in organisations, but if their voices aren’t heard then that’s also a problem.

      Any function with a top heavy concentration of either gender runs into stereotyping difficulties. What we need is balance!

  5. irenicon

    Recently I went to a meeting with an HR manager and their CEO. She (HR) had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get sign off on a particular body of work. We got sign off in an hour!

    The reality was that this HR person, like so many others could only present her arguments in terms of ‘best practise’ ‘ compliance’ and ‘you must’, none of which motivated her CEO to take time out of other priorities to consider this one.

    A short meeting chewing through how it might affect the organisation (and how it had) given what had not been done, how quickly this could be remedied and at what cost and the project was rolled out the next working day.

    A lot of HR people have no idea how to influence their boss. No executive man in businesss would have presented arguments in such woolly and abstract terms and expected to get sign off.

    I find this is a common element to my work and in no way unique to a particular sector, individual or issue.

    For me a lot of these issues are around how the HR profession debates internally and then assumes everyone else is interested. A busy CEO is not interested in most of what HR has to offer unless there is a clear, concise, reason why they should devote time, money or resources to it – just like any other element of business. There can be short or longer term objectives but it has to be clear and relevant.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Annabel – thanks for comments. Your experience seems to have covered most of the issues we talked about:
      – not being taken seriously in the business. When I worked in the steel industry an accusation levelled against me was that I had never worked on a blast furnace. This was true – but I could make every effort to understand and all HR personnel , men and women were rotated through production. I am told this happens less today – but professional bodies, organisations and HR staff themselves , can change that, by demanding it as part of professional qualification training. Everyone should know their own business – not just their function. It’s also important to know the numbers behind issues : slow filling of vacancies, absenteeism, onboarding. CEOs understand numbers!
      – not being listened to – Michele made a good point there
      – not speaking in a way that can be heard. This is something that women can change themselves by simply stopping asking for permission! Now deference is almost expected and constructive assertive communication ( not aggresssion) , is then perceived as being “too direct” when it comes from a woman.

      I think hiding behind best practise and compliance is part of that. It’ avoids having to give a personal opionion, because it’s safe and structured and there are rules.

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