The HR role has traditionally been seen as dominated by women but Louise Druce believes you shouldn’t let appearances deceive you.
When you talk about gender balance, the emphasis tends to be on equal rights and more career development for women in the workplace. However, HR has always been perceived as being dominated by women, so should we be turning the tables in the very profession that is charged with maintaining the equilibrium?
Trying to get to the crux of the issue poses a problem because it is based on a lot of generalisation and sometimes out-dated stereotypes. For example, much has been made of the fact that over 70% of CIPD members are women. But is that really a true reflection of the balance in the workplace?
Sheridan Hughes, occupational psychologist
“While a gender mix is always valuable, women are always more likely to gravitate to the ‘feminine’ field of HR,” says occupational psychologist and career management expert Sheridan Hughes. “Women are naturally more interested in nurturing, developing and considering people as people. That is not to say that men with a well-developed feminine side would not be equally drawn, but many masculine men would see HR as wishy-washy and the ‘fluff not the stuff’ of business.”
However, she sides with Karen Sadler, a diversity expert at leadership learning solutions firm Academme, who says that HR is not as ‘soft’ as some people think. “The notion that HR is a fluffy job is outdated and more people recognise there is a harder side to the profession,” says Sadler. “Negotiation, conflict resolution and data management are all crucial skills to being a successful HR practitioner.”
And something equally appealing to men, they agree. So does this really prove a gender imbalance?
Tea and sympathy
The fluffy tag could hark back to the days when HR was more familiar as ‘personnel’. Anthony Pierce, HR director of recruitment firm Hudson, believes it suffered from a “tea and sympathy” image. But a lot has been done in the past decade to prove HR’s merits as a business performance influencer, especially as it has branched off into separate entities such as recruitment, compensation and benefits, reward and recognition, talent management, and so on.
Anthony Pierce, Hudson
Pierce admits his company does see more female candidates for HR roles but puts this down to the remnants of the personnel legacy as more women were in the job, adding that the numbers are already starting to level out. “We place an equal number of men and women,” says Pierce. “We’re at a point where people are hiring the best people for the job. They’re not looking at balancing their numbers when it comes to gender.”
Another possible reason for the perception that there are more women in HR could be because more men are coming into the role from another area of the business, rather than going straight into HR after education. “Any imbalances further down the career ladder tend to balance out towards the top,” says Jo Sellwood, managing director of HR recruitment firm Strategi Search and Selection. “One reason could be the increasing number of experienced managers transferring their skills into HR from other functions, such as operations and finance, as these tend to attract more men than women.”
Pierce is among them, having previously been a finance manager. However, he suggests this could also help strengthen the appeal of HR to all sexes as competition heats up between people already in the role, people looking to transfer into HR from other functions, and graduates entering the market with specialist qualifications.
The bigger picture
Martin Thomas, head of recruitment at BT, doesn’t see a significant gender imbalance at all in his company or at his previous employer, Barclays. “It’s fairly even at all levels,” he says. “Although we do make a positive effort to ensure we have a diverse workforce, it’s a workforce to reflect the customer base we have. It’s not just about gender. We recruit people because they are the right person for the job.”
BT is split into HR specialists who reside in an area of expertise or within teams of experts, and people who develop long-term, strategic business partnerships with the individual line manager across the business. It also recruits within all levels of the HR community, from graduates to executives.
Martin Thomas, BT
What is more important than gender is the business attributes that candidates have. “You need a lot of skills to do the role,” says Thomas. “It’s about professionalism and developing deep knowledge in their area. People in BT have moved between generalist HR into specialist roles and vice versa for specific career development. The opportunity comes with that to gain broader experience and capability, which makes a more rounded HR professional.”
So should HR get hung-up by the whole gender issue? Certainly, if there was any danger that they could wander into the territory of discrimination there would be a real cause for concern. But since there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence that men are struggling to climb the HR career ladder, perhaps by getting side-tracked by whether there are more women than men in HR, a golden opportunity is being missed to concentrate on the more important issues, such as getting the function as a whole recognised as being crucial to improving the bottom line.
“HR has done a good job on its own PR but businesses still need to get HR to the board,” says Pierce. “At the moment, people who want to get to that level may not consider a career in HR – you can’t transfer out of HR and become a finance manager, for example.
“However, once we do get it to the board, all good professionals, whether male or female, will want much more to enter the HR marketplace.”