HR’s gender inequality (Guest commentary)

Why aren’t more men choosing HR as a career?
By Quentin Colburn
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/04/2006

The human resources profession is dominated by women. In the United Kingdom, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently reported that about 70 per cent of its membership is female. This raises interesting questions about equality within HR including: Does HR practice what is preaches when it comes to diversity?

As I approach this topic I have to confess to a degree of bias — after all, I am a man. However, I have to ask if this apparent inequality between the sexes is something HR should be concerned about and, if it is concerned, can anything be done about it?

Inequality comes in very different forms. There will be some who rightly point out that there is inequality based on other factors such as race, age and disability. However the issue of gender is one that seems to cause the biggest divide within the profession.

Many professions have differentials in terms of gender balance. Nursing is typically dominated by women. In sports, the bulk of professionals are male. So why is HR female-dominated? Is it that HR, like nursing, is a caring profession? There were days when industrial welfare was the predominant role of HR, but the profession has come a long way away since those days. HR is now an integral part of the management team.

So why do fewer males enter the profession? Could it be a perception that there are more interesting roles in other professions? What is the attraction of HR for female entrants? Perhaps some of the reasons are related to the fact many people enter HR in an administrative role and then work their way up. After all, the majority of administrative staff are women. Alternatively, perhaps HR is not seen as such an attractive and feasible route to the top of organizations and so the function is shunned by men who are looking for rapid career advancement.

Could it be that women are perceived as being better at understanding how people tick, how to motivate them and how to manage them? It would be a very sexist position to argue this is the case, but is this a view that is popularly held? Alternatively, given that many enter through the administrative route, does this disparity represent a view among university graduates that this is not a career option for them?

In the end, does it really matter that there is a gender imbalance in HR? Probably not. But what is much more important is that those in the profession are able to perform effectively and deliver the outputs their organizations need. But what does the imbalance say to colleagues? Can HR be accused of not practising what it preaches?

Getting diversity onto corporate agendas is not always easy. For many organizations the subject will only be addressed as a safeguard against potential discrimination claims through human rights tribunals rather than an opportunity to be positive about these matters. There are exceptions to this, in both the public and private sectors, where organizations see the real benefit of having a diversified workforce. But they are not the norm and, in any event, few address the issue of gender inequality within HR.

So why is gender inequality in HR not perceived to be an issue by employers? The primary reason must be that HR does not recognize it as an issue, and if it doesn’t, how can top management? This is where responsibility for addressing the issues sits fair and square on HR’s shoulders. If HR relies on senior management to raise the subject directly with HR teams, it will surely have failed in managing itself and with it the chance to be able to influence and manage the whole realm of diversity issues facing organizations.

Diversity management is now surely a business issue rather than one of regulatory compliance. If HR is seen as being incompetent within its own backyard, why will it be trusted in other parts of the organization? The market for skilled people will only become more difficult as demographic issues reduce the working population. If HR isn’t careful it may find half the population fears a career in HR is inappropriate or that it’s a closed shop open to women only.

In upper level management, women are likely better represented in HR than in other professions. But the representation still doesn’t seem proportional. So where does the drop off occur in female HR professionals from junior to senior levels? And why?

If HR is failing its own colleagues, there has to be something wrong with the way it is developing its teams. How can HR then work with others to encourage them in areas of diversity? There is also the very real issue that the organizations HR represents may be missing out on the opportunity to maximize the benefit of the talent that already exists internally.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant in the United Kingdom, based near London. He can be reached at Quentin@qcpeople.co.uk or visit www.qcpeople.co.uk for more information.

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