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The boys are back in town: Men in HR


Men in HRThe 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?

“Many masculine men would see HR as wishy-washy and the ‘fluff not the stuff’ of business.”

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 “The notion that HR is a fluffy job is outdated and more people recognise there is a harder side to the profession,” says Sadler.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.

“People are hiring the best people for the job. They’re not looking at balancing their numbers when it comes to gender.”

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.

“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.”

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.”

10 Responses

  1. Perspectives
    It very much depends on the individual. Some have an interest in and the ability to take a broader perspective, others do not.

    Many academics, especially those without “real world” experience cannot offer very broad perspectives. Probably some of those quoted in the article are CIPD members/credentialed, but it’s really irrelevant. (Also, while the CIPD is good for many things, it is essentially a closed shop and could be argued to focus people on too narrow a perspective. Same goes for SHRM in the US.)

    The people in the article were speaking from their own experience in a way that seemed appropriate to the topic. If they were asked a question intended to elicit a broader perspective, I suspect most/all of them could have provided a suitable answer.

  2. Experts
    I don’t see how you can have an broad external outlook if you are speaking from the individualistic perspective of your own company.

  3. Everything is relative
    Stats are always good, but they need to be checked. I’m not sure I’m convinced that “40% of women are HR directors”! (Bit pedantic, I know…).

    I’m not sure what Juliet feels would constitute an “expert” – an academic or member of CIPD seems a fairly tenuous definition. I thought the comments in the article were appropriate.

    I agree with the observation that the ratio of men in HR tends to increase the higher up the ladder you go (although the number of high profile female HR executives is certainly increasing). The reason for this is probably that traditional career paths are more simply more suitable for men. Also, until recently, most organizations did not view HR as a strategic asset, so men who wanted to get ahead were likely to be attracted elsewhere.

    The above observations are my take on the situation in European and North American companies. Where I work, in Japan, it couldn’t be more different. HR is basically still “personnel”. It is both seen as and behaves as an administrative function, and it is extremely rare to find a woman in a position of any real responsibility. Personally I would like to see more diversity, because having too many of any particular type of person in charge of something inevitably stifles creativity and flexibility.

  4. Top level only
    Hi Juliet,

    Thanks for your comments. In addition to Lucie’s points about the contributors to this article, I did mention that CIPD figures showed over 70% of women are members. But that is membership.

    I also raised the point there are more women at entry to middle level HR but this begins to level out at senior levels. In fact, figures from the Chartered Management Institute reveal 40% of women are HR directors (and, on average, earning less than male couterparts).

    The website is full of articles concerning maternity, female glass ceilings, pay inequality etc because they are HR issues that can’t be ignored. Just as you’ll find articles on flexibility, age discrimination, childcare, recruitment and retention, and so on – relevant to both sexes.

    However, if other members feel there is still a deeper issue to be explored on this topic, we would be happy to oblige!


  5. Gender imbalances
    Dear Juliet

    Many thanks for your comments.

    The ‘experts’ that Louise spoke to for this article may just be ‘every day’ HR directors, but they are also immersed in HR all day, every day, and have their ear to the ground and finger on the pulse of these kind of HR issues and are therefore just as qualified to talk about this and give their opinion as an academic or CIPD expert.

    In terms of research, if you know of any siginificant surveys or statistics about the gender imbalances in HR, please do let us know as we are always on the look out for this kind of thing and we would only be too happy to look into this and report on it.

    As for our team of editors/writers, the six male members of our editorial team must be in touch with their feminine side I guess!

    Many thanks,

  6. Top level only
    I agree with Alan,

    the two ‘experts’ cited are everyday HR directors – so no academic or CIPD expertise there then.

    Furthermore no significant research/stats/surveys.

    This website is full of articles concerning maternity, female glass ceilings, pay inequality, most of the in-house staff writers/editors also seem to be female etc a little more objectivity and in depth analysis on men’s issues would be appreciated.

    I disagree with John, I think staff are equally robust, however more aware of their rights and fairness, they wont take the ‘rubbish’ they used to have to put up with. Its easy to look back to the ‘good old days’ with nostalgia but they weren’t always fair.

  7. Quote / unquote

    In your article Jo Sellwood refers to imbalances further down the career ladder which tends to support the perception of a gender imbalance in HR and Pierce mentions the influx of men from other functions into senior roles in HR, which may explain why the imbalance isn’t as marked at more senior levels.

    Martin Thomas may not see a “significant” imbalance in his organisation but the wording does suggest that an imbalance exists. We don’t know whether the imbalance is enough to merit accusations of discrimination nor would I expect a senior managers to portray their organisation as discriminatory so it is hardly suprising that their expert evidence suggests that there isn’t a problem.

    On the other hand we know that the membership of the CIPD suggests that men are significantly under represented in HR and this is supported by my experience in most organisations.

    Why is it that when women are under represented (e.g. plumbing) Government Ministers raise the issue but when men are under represented the argument is “shouldn’t we be recruiting the right person for the job”? Of couyrse we should but in all cases and there shouldn’t be one rule for women and another for men as tends to happen when it comes to this type of equality action.

    I said that you “make out” that the under represention of men in HR doesn’t matter as you refer to “getting side tracked” and “a golden opportunity is being missed to concentrate on more important issues” – not that you said that it didn’t matter – but it is hard to see how the terms you used suggest that you think that it does matter.

    As for my self, no I don’t have a problem, I’ve worked in HR for over 30 years and have never been out of work but I have always been in the minority gender and as now have often been the only male voice in a department.

  8. Perhaps we now have what the work force needs
    In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was first an employee, the vast majority of personnel officers and personnel managers were men. Many of them had served in the war and had faced the realities of combat. They had generally been officers and warrant officers. They had iron hands in very thick velvet gloves and a very gentlmanly approach. Even in the mid 70s the working members of the EEF were men. They were not very ‘nurturing’ but I do not think nurturing would have been really appreciated by the work force, whether male or female. There was a different attitude to employment then. Perhaps we now have the HR managers to suit these very different times. Times in which peoples feelings are considered much more important and staff are certainly more ‘sensitive’and, I believe, less robust.

  9. Men in HR
    Thanks for your comments Alan.

    To back up a statement I made in the feature, the experts I spoke to (including Anthony Pierce and Martin Thomas, both men and senior in HR)don’t seem to think there is a significant gender imbalance – certainly not enough to merit accusations of discrimination.

    If anything, they look to promote a diverse workforce and believe more men are entering the profession, especially at more senior levels.

    You can find out more about the gender issue when it comes to women elsewhere on HRZone, but one of the main points in this feature is shouldn’t we be recruiting the right people for the job instead of balancing numbers based on gender?

    I have not stated anywhere that the issue “doesn’t matter” but suggested there could be bigger issues at stake based on the feedback I received from the experts I interviewed, who say there is no evidence to say men are struggling to get into HR roles. Or have you yourself found it difficult?

    I am always interested to hear how other peoples’ experiences may have differed.

  10. Will the last man to leave HR please turn off the lights!
    I wonder if Louise would be so quick to say “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” if the reverse was true and there were far more men than women in our profession and the so called side tracking was about ensuring that more women were recruited into HR.

    Why is it that inequality affecting women is always a casue for concern but where men are at the receiving end there’s always someone ready to dismiss the situation as unimportant?

    Our HR director is female as are 75% of our 300+ HR staff and that is typical of everywhere that I have worked in HR in the last 30 years. In many HR departments I have been the only man – as I am in the team that I am in today.

    So why isn’t anything being done to correct this gender imbalance? The answer is that all of our equalities legislation is based on the premise that women / ethinic minorities are discriminated against – not men. Even the proposed legislation that would allow positive discrimination where there is a gender / race imbalance is a case in point. It was widely reported in the press as discriminating against white men because it has been presented as something to help women / ethnic minorities but there are many jobs like teaching, nursing, HR etc where men are under represented.

    With discrimination against men the poor relation in the world of equalities will any action be taken to address this? No of course not and as long as writers like Louise make out that under representation of men doesn’t matter the problem will continue to grow.

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