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Colborn’s Corner: Equality in HR?


Quentin Colborn
The confirmation that 70% of CIPD members are female raises interesting questions about equality within HR. This week Quentin takes a sideways look at equality within the profession and asks if we do indeed practice what we preach.

As I approach this topic I have to confess to a degree of bias after all I am male. I cannot view things completely impartially; no matter how much I wear the professional hat that we all take on from time to time. However I have to ask if this apparent inequality between the sexes is something we should be concerned about and even if we are concerned, can we do anything about it?

Of course inequality comes in very different forms, I am aware that there will be some who rightly point out that there is inequality based on other irrelevant factors such as race and disability. However I suspect that the issue of gender is one that causes the biggest divide within the profession.

Many professions have differentials in terms of gender balance from the caring areas such as nursing through to professional – typically female through to sports where the bulk of professionals are male. So why are things so different in HR? Is it that HR is a caring type of profession? Surely not now, there were the days when industrial welfare was the predominant role of our forerunners, but we are a long way from those days now with HR, to my mind at least, being an integral part of the management team.

So why do fewer males enter the profession? Is it that there is a perception that there are more interesting roles in other professions? What is the attraction of HR for female entrants? Perhaps the reason is related to the fact that a good number of people enter HR in an administrative role and then work their way up the career ladder and the majority of administrative staff are female.

Does it matter that there is a gender imbalance anyway? I don’t think so, what is much more important is that those in the profession are able to perform effectively and deliver the outputs their organisations need.

What about the situation at higher management levels? While I have no empirical evidence to hand, I suspect that at senior levels in organisations females are better represented in HR than in other professions – not that I am saying the level of representation is yet high enough!

So where does the drop off occur from junior to senior levels and why? And in any case does it matter? We may glibly talk of glass ceilings in other places, but do they operate within HR? If so, who can tackle this and how do they go about it?

I think it does matter, if we are failing our own colleagues there has to be some thing wrong with the way we are developing our own teams. How can we then work with others to encourage them in areas of diversity? There is also the very real issue that the organisations we represent may be missing out on the opportunity to maximise the benefit of the talent that already exists internally.

So what’s your experience of gender barriers in HR? Do you think that males have a difficulty getting in at the lower levels? Why don’t women progress as far in HR as the numbers suggest they ought? There are plenty of opportunities on views on this one so let’s have your thoughts!

Quentin Colborn is an independent consultant who helps organisations investigate grievances and disciplinary situations. To contact him T: 01376 571360 or e-mail him at [email protected]

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

11 Responses

  1. Nobody is perfect
    I think we may try more than other fields to get things right – so we aren’t all bad, and in many cases I think we should be standing up for ourselves and saying that we are not discriminatory. However, at the end of the day there are bad HR professionals as there are poor people in every area of employment; and there are also those working in organisations that don’t let them ‘do the right thing’ – I think it would be a little too hopeful and bordering on hubris to think that we all get it all right all of the time when it comes to discrimination.

    There is obviously something not going to plan when you consider the vast majority of HR professionals are female, and yet the number in senior positions are not so great. I have to say I think the female majority is in part to do with the still existing false assumption that HR is a ‘tea and tissues’ function and therefore is far more suited to women (please don’t think I in any way agree with that statement). The reason for more men at the top? Well, I think it is at least in part a symptom of poor support and policy supporting those that want to either take a career break or work reasonable hours so they can balance home and work life.

    I would like to add that it isn’t just sex discrimination where we get it wrong though – we should all take stock and practice what we ‘preach’ a little (or maybe a lot) more. For example of all the professions/careers around we seem to be the worst by far at stipulating how many years experience we must have to recruit someone into X or Y HR position. Surely we should know the inherent problems with this approach? This is just one example of course…

    I would therefore conclude that the issue discussed in previous posts is part of a wider problem. For me discrimination in HR is just one of the symptoms of a disease of disingenuous and hypocritical minority in a field where we should ALL know better. I am proud to be an HR professional, but we don’t do ourselves any favours when we are not true to what we are arguing in the boardroom – and it makes it hard for the majority to put any weight on professional integtrity when there are these issues surrounding us.

  2. Men need protection too

    I agree that the issue of “women’s representation in business” is far from settled and that despite being under represented in HR men hold a disproportionate number of the top jobs.

    Where we differ is that I feel all under representation issues need to be addressed and not as you argue that the end justifies the means and that we should accept or even promote inequality against men to level the playing field. Two wrongs do not make a right they simply create another layer of injustice that will need to be addressed in the future.

    We can create a level playing field by treating everyone fairly but “positive action” may be appropriate to help people overcome any previous disadvantage. E.g. School leavers wanting to train as plumbers should get the same opportunity regardless of their sex / race etc. If the lack of female role models may deter girls from applying the answer is to promote the industry to girls (positive action) not to favour them at selection (positive discrimination). Equally we should ensure that where men are under represented (nursing / teaching / social work / local government / clerical and shop work etc) the same effort is made to redress the balance.

    The history of male and female oppression is similar – people have always been oppressed – and many miners, steel workers, ship builders etc would describe the closure of their industries and being condemned to life on the dole as oppression. Unemployment is a form of economic oppression and is a predominately male problem.

    It is a mistake to apply today’s standards to the past and imply “oppression.” In the 1950/60s the social norm in this country was for men to work and support their family. Women gave up work when they married or as soon as they had their first child. Most did not see themselves as oppressed, working mothers were looked down on. I’m not defending it but that is how it was. Pay and job opportunities reflected this culture – men were paid more because they needed to support their family, women received less because they didn’t have the same responsibilities. Today, although far from perfect, we have moved closer to equal career choice and pay for women and if tax credits are included working mothers may receive more than their male colleagues.

    It is time that we applied equality to both sexes rather than using it as a euphemism for women’s rights. The discrimination faced by men in many jobs cannot be ignored – we have rights too. I responded to your original comment because every time the inequalities faced by men are raised someone steps in to turn the focus back onto women. Men are half the population and we won’t go on having our problems swept under the carpet.

  3. Disappointed of Northants
    I am surprised and disappointed that no one has seen fit to challenge my statement “that Sex Discrimination is alive and well and living in HR”. I expected numerous comments refuting this statement. Does the lack of comment suggest that this statement is true and that after all the years of accusing men of sex discrimination there is an admission that women are just of capable of being discriminatory to.

    With regard to the comments on the lack of women at Senior I can see a number of issues which result in restrictive numbers of women in more Senior Roles.

    Senior Managers in some Organisations just won’t have a woman in a Senior Position despite the Sex Discrimination Act. I have over the years have fought an on going battle against this attitude.

    In one organisation I was in they were recruiting an FD, every women was reject at 1st sift of CV’s. I made sure that the better ones were interviewed but despite my efforts a man was finally appointed. In another experience when I was being replaced when I moved on, I said to the recruiting agent they would appoint a man. The outcome was even though there were only 3 men out of 53 applicants. (Please note I was not involved at any stage in the recruitment) a man was appointment.

    In other situations women have themselves are to blame for their lack of advancement. In another organisation in worked in on an interim basis they appointed a man with no HR experience over a very talented woman who already held the post of Senior HR Office within the organisation, as the Japanese Management would not have a woman at Senior Level. Neither she nor the other women who were being openly discriminated against did anything about it. Be it leave and find a job, where they where their gender had no relevance or take them to a Tribunal. Personally I would have favoured the latter.

    I have experience women who block the promotion of any other woman to senior positions.

  4. Disproportional representation of men in high places in HR

    Thanks for your response.

    As I stated in my original comments, I believe that the vast majority of HR professionals value the skills and experience that a candidate brings to the table over all other things. That is how it should be. End of discussion. Or is it?

    Let’s talk about men’s representation in HR. For the number of men who are employed in the HR field an unusually high proportion of them are in senior positions. Don’t get me wrong, my point is not that men shouldn’t be in HR in larger numbers, in fact I quite like men and I even have some friends in HR who are male (tee hee) my point is that the issue of women’s representation in business is far from settled. And to address Julie’s point this is certainly an issue for an HR website.
    In a previous post you said: “It’s time that we learned to be inclusive when we promote equality – because promoting “equality” for one section of the community will inevitably lead to new inequalities for those who are left out.” I have to say that I disagree (though perhaps in bringing up the issue of female representation in business I am doing just as you said we should). When you are working with an uneven playing field something has to be done to redress the balance. Then and only then we can all move on. Even with legislation, company policies and promotion of equality the playing field has yet to be evened.

    I was somewhat baffled that you compared the history of male and female oppression as if they were similar. People in general have been oppressed at different times in history…there is no denying that. What I referred to was a history of females, people with disabilities and visible minorities being oppressed which prevented them from finding meaningful, paid employment. You can’t possibly hope to argue that men as a group are facing the same challenges.

    Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

  5. Even handedness
    >>>I think the question should not be “why aren’t there more men in HR?”, rather, why aren’t there more solid senior management opportunities for women in other professions?>>

    I disagree, this is an HR website, the later question is more general and there are more solid senior management opportunities, we have legislation that supports it. It’s just there arent women in those roles, same as there arent men in HR roles.

    One has to be even handed about this – even if men’s are slightly bigger (hands that is!)

  6. “Blinkers on” one “keen observer” with no appreciation of histor

    To say that “men, have not — as a group — been oppressed” is to ignore the history and struggle of the working man. Have you never heard of serfdom? Even for much of our much vaunted “democracy” most men, like women, did not have the vote until quite recently as property ownership requirements excluded them from the democratic process. Later, the whole trade union movement is a fight against oppression.

    Today we are ignored – we have a Minister for Women (and Equality) but men are unrepresented. Far from being priviledged, in education, men are falling behind and male employment has fallen from 94% in the 1950s to around 75% today whilst female employment has increased dramatically. Socially men are increasingly feeling excluded – an un-married father has few rights to see their child and over half of all divorced fathers lose contact with their children within 2 years. The list goes on but space does not allow me to.

    It is true that because of historical employment practices, Management (including of trade unions) is dominated by men. However, “positive discrimination” is not the answer because the people who would benefit or suffer the effects of this practice are not the ones who lost out or gained from historical discrimination. All it does is create another group who have been denied opportunities because of their sex / race etc.

    The under-representation of men in HR is a serious problem – it harms HR on three levels. Firstly we can’t hope to persuade others not to discriminate when we visibly discriminate in our own profession. Secondly, under-representation leads to policy bias – I asked my own employer to name one policy aimed at reducing the significant under-representation of men in our organisation – there aren’t any but we have a whole range designed to attract more women to work for us. Finally, it damages the credibilty of HR and marginalises us as we are seen as not being able to compete with other professions when it comes to attracting our share of the best talent from the whole of the population.

    Despite having heard about cases of sex discrimination against men you argue that it is “not an issue of the same magnitude” because it originates from a position of priviledge. The point about discrimination is the way it affects individuals – the cause does not change the suffering. The NHS has been caught out by denying male nurses the right to treat female patients from certain ethnic / religious groups. This is just the tip of the ice burg and HR will be sunk if we fail to recognise the need to change course and to stop ignoring the under current of acceptance of practices that discriminate against men.

  7. Privileged male stance and reverse discrimination
    Your piece was interesting and as with most interesting articles it raises more questions than it answers. I would like to contribute my opinion as a female HR professional and keen observer of the field.

    I think that there are many reasons why HR is a predominantly “female” field ranging from the historical to the more timely.

    As you rightly pointed out, there are more women in senior management roles in HR than probably any other profession. This in itself is an incentive for young women with serious career aspirations. Women have fewer role models in business than men and fewer mentorship possibilities. It makes sense that women would be attracted to a field where they have seen other women succeed and where they can find their mentors and role models.

    I think the question should not be “why aren’t there more men in HR?”, rather, why aren’t there more solid senior management opportunities for women in other professions?

    Finally, as men have not — as a group — been oppressed in the way that women, visibile minorities and people with disabilities have, their lack of representation in any field should not be marked as similar. Their lack of representation in HR, though interesting, does not strike me as an “issue” of the same magnitude. It is a whole other kettle of fish and one which originates from a position of priviledge rather than oppression.

    I too have heard of men missing out on an HR job opportunity because an HR manager is reluctant to disturb the dynamic of an all female department. But I am also sure that the majority of HR professionals would agree that the skills and experience that a candidate can bring to the table are much more relevant than gender.

    If there is any reason to practice reverse discrimination it is to redress a balance which has been, and remains, out of kilter in the business world.

    Thanks for stirring the pot!

  8. Sex Discrimination is alive and well and living in HR
    Over the years I have spoken to a number of males wishing to get into HR and they tell stories of being blocked by female Managers.
    They were asked questions they how you feel about working in a female department, how do you feel about having a female boss all the questions that we have been telling managers they can’t ask female applicant.

    I my self can remember being asked by the Head of HR for a large German Car Company why at 32 I was not married. This was some 2 weeks before my marriage.(I believe the internation was “was I gay” . What business of her was it. If I asked when are you getting married ro when are you going to have a baby I would be strubng up from the nearest lamp post)

    Gender barriers work both ways. May be we should be looking a sex discrimination in another manner. Don’t get me wrong I don’t believe all females operate a sex discrimination poicly but I would suggest there are a number of females who are just as discriminating as some men are.

    Discrimination in any form is unacceptable.

    Come on HR get your finger out and put a stop this practice.

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Annie Hayes


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