Is there a downside?
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.
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.
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.
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 (unless, as one kindly said, those men have a few too many y chromosomes!) 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 begin 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?