Long reads

HR's gender challenge

27 Sep 2017 By Emily Burt

Ever since it began life in munitions factories, HR has been viewed as a female profession. But is its lack of gender balance becoming a problem, and can it ever truly be solved?

There are few topics more likely to push the buttons of the average man (or woman) on the street than gender equality. Which makes it refreshing that the HR profession is a place where, by and large, being male or female seems unlikely to be a determining factor in how you are viewed by your colleagues.

And yet HR has a gender challenge that is a frequent topic of discussion when the profession gets together. Specifically, just 21 per cent of CIPD members are male, a figure it seems reasonable to assume is replicated across HR as a whole. And this ratio has shifted only slightly in the past few years (in 2013 it was 19 per cent).

There are plenty of theories advanced for why HR is intrinsically viewed, both in the public imagination and in practice, as a female profession. These range from the legacy of its early incarnation as the welfare arm of factories during and immediately after World War I, to the perception that HR requires an over-abundance of soft skills.

There is also a broader context to consider, and it is voiced by Brad Taylor, director of people at the CIPD. “Certainly there’s an imbalance in HR – and that’s something we need to keep challenging – but the profession isn’t alone in this regard,” he says. “If we look across the gender diversity challenge, there are several roles and sectors where there is a predominance of one gender over another. As a society, we need to get past the idea that certain jobs are typically a ‘man thing’ or ‘woman thing’ to do.”

Amid the post-work rush of a London pub, People Management asked a selection of HR students to explore these issues further and, while there was outward harmony among the mixed-gender group, the fractious nature of the debate was always simmering underneath.

“HR is the sort of profession that comes from a social sciences background, and in my experience social science degrees at undergraduate level start attracting women and men in those 70-30, 80-20 ratios,” says Nick Coleman, an area manager for a social justice charity who is currently studying for a Level 5 CIPD qualification.

Coleman says he didn’t consider HR as a career when he graduated, and doubts that many other young men do. “It could be partly the fact that it was just never presented as a viable career path at that time, and partly because of archetypes about being young and male,” he says.

By contrast, Zeina J Al-Khaznach studied for an MsC in HR at King’s College London and moved into the profession immediately after completing her degree. She is “obsessed with human beings”, and says she has always been concerned with issues around employee welfare and development. But she rejects the idea that this is in any way linked to her gender.

“I don’t like that people treat HR as a ‘woman’s profession’; I don’t appreciate that label, or the idea that it’s to do with empathy,” she says. “Empathy at work is not something that should be HR-specific. When I asked my male colleagues about getting into the profession, none of them gave the reason of feeling like empathetic people. They are business-oriented, and recognise the importance of the profession in the world of work.”

Students are a useful bellwether – an early warning system, even – for the broader discussion about gender. Aidan McKearney has been a senior lecturer in HRM for more than 15 years, at London Metropolitan University and more recently London South Bank University. He says “the gender balance of those taking postgraduate HRM qualifications is usually 80 per cent female – and, if anything, the trend is becoming even more gender imbalanced, with fewer and fewer men appearing in the classroom in recent years”.

Other HRM academics report similar trends, he says, and they often ponder why the profession seems not to be attracting greater gender diversity (though he equally points out that there are many examples of ‘horizontal occupational segregation’ working “the other way round” – in engineering and technology, for example).

While HR is undoubtedly better understood and more strategically central than ever, old stereotypes are hard to shake and the conflation of HR with a ‘tea and sympathy’ style of operating has been deeply ingrained. This will bristle with many who spend their time having difficult conversations without a tissue in sight – “I defy anyone to tell me I moved into this profession because it was touchy-feely… I’m here to make a real difference,” says Justine Williams, an HR manager at Movement Strategies who is studying for a Level 5 qualification – but it plays a role in turning young men away from a future in HR and into what they perceive as ‘tougher’ professions.

“HR is still broadly considered a ‘female’ occupation despite the fact that as a society we are trying – rightly – to become more gender neutral,” says Chris Doe, who is performing a sideways move into the profession after years of working in a law firm. “But women are perceived to have better soft skills than men, and at some point empathy and people skills do have to come on to the agenda.”

‘Intrinsic aptitude’ theory – the suggestion that our biology or neurology primes certain groups to be better at certain roles – has been hotly contested of late. It’s not far from the set of ideas that got James Damore sacked by Google and has also been cited by those seeking to explain the under-representation of women in STEM professions (only 9 per cent of the engineering workforce in the UK is female, for example).

Whether we believe HR is intrinsically ‘caring’ or not, could it be – as the stereotype has it – that women are just more naturally adept at a role that involves interaction with others? There is a growing body of evidence that suggests our thinking in this area needs to evolve further.

Intrinsic aptitude owes much to 30-year-old experiments conducted by leading neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, which concluded that the level of exposure to testosterone in the womb led to the development of ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains.

But in the intervening years, the methodology of Baron-Cohen’s work has been criticised, and other research has demonstrated clearly that socialisation is every bit as important in developing character traits and, eventually, choosing a career. In short, if girls are not exposed to maths, for example, and are consistently told they are less adept with numbers than boys, it is unsurprising that far fewer of them become accountants or mathematicians. The same holds true for other professions.

In her new book, Inferior, Angela Saini points to the fact that the ratio of men to women among those with exceptional mathematical ability has fallen from around 13:1 in the 1970s to 2:1 today. This cannot be explained by intrinsic aptitude. As Saini writes: “Human biology… does not sit independently from society and culture. The two interact with each other.”

Neville Hounsome, consultant, coach and former HR director, references the work of linguist Deborah Tannen. “She observes that the language between boys and girls is very similar until the age of seven, and then boys develop the language of ‘competition’, while girls develop the language of ‘cooperation’,” he says. “It’s all a bit Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, but I’ve definitely observed, at board level, these misunderstandings in language and attitude persisting.”

Howard Sloane is managing partner at Teslo HR and has spent his entire career in the profession, following in his father’s footsteps as an HR director. While he rejects the idea of intrinsic aptitude, he argues that the idea HR is in itself ‘fluffy’ can be more damaging than concerns about its gender make-up.

“I have often been in board-level meetings, and I know that those in the room see me as the softer part of that meeting,” he says. “There are all kinds of jokes and comments that are made, along the lines of ‘tissues and issues’ and being ‘warm’, ‘fluffy’ or ‘tree hugging’. I think you learn as a man in HR to roll with that a little bit and use it to your advantage.”

The fact that, despite the situation improving, most young people have little idea of what HR practically does before they enter the workforce seems to play a role in shaping who studies the topic and ends up working in it, but can only go so far in explaining why these are mostly women.

Taylor says the issue should be seen as less binary and more nuanced: “Diversity is absolutely something that we need to be thinking about as a profession, but this isn’t just about making HR more attractive to men. We want it to be seen as an attractive profession full stop, drawing on a range of skillsets and experiences that come from professionals with different backgrounds rather than different identities.

“As with the wider workforce, we need to encourage greater diversity in HR, and this will be achieved by creating more inclusive workplaces, and recognising and encouraging the different strengths and experiences that individuals bring.”

Certainly, the majority of men performing HR roles, including those featured on these pages, do not habitually see their gender as a practical impediment. As Ollie Hill, people business partner at Help for Heroes, puts it: “I tell people I’m in HR and they often say ‘oh wow, there aren’t many men in that’ – but I love it, and I’m really proud of it. I once turned up to interview and was told how refreshing it was that I’d applied, because they didn’t see men coming into the roles. But anything to do with professional stigmas, or working in female-dominant teams, has never crossed my mind.”

But could there be a more tangible downside to being in a profession where one gender dominates? One male HR leader People Management spoke to claimed he was regularly told ‘off the record’ by recruitment consultants that they were not looking for men in HR director roles. He even won an out-of-court settlement from one firm. Others who contacted People Management by email said that being referred to as ‘pale, stale and male’ was a frequent stereotype that went unchallenged – but it would be unacceptable to group women together in such a way.

The flip side of this is that it is widely acknowledged that the greatest proportion of men in HR are to be found in the more senior ranks (one recent survey said there were now 6 per cent more men in senior roles than women, though these figures are open to question).

This means, among other things, that a large share of HR’s public ‘voice’ is still male. “While studying for my CIPD qualification, I noticed that most of the publications I was being told to read were written by men, and the people coming up with the theories were men,” says Williams. “For me, the gender issue is less about the percentages of women in the profession, and more about how far they are getting – whether there is a glass ceiling in HR where men who are more widely published, more vocal and articulating more theories fill those senior positions.”

A key factor in this, which has been well-documented elsewhere, is that men are more likely to work in a different function or career before moving into HR at a more senior level. This is a welcome trend to the extent that it brings fresh perspectives into the profession, but suggests there are issues around progression.

“We ran a survey that showed about a 70 per cent imbalance in favour of females in the lower to mid ranks, and then about 70 per cent males in the mid to senior ranks,” says Lisa Wormald, a director at executive search firm Harvey Nash HR who has extensive experience of finding HR leaders for blue-chip companies.

“My theory is that a lot of men make the leap into HR as they reach mid-management levels, and get far more involved in the management of talent, business transformation and culture. This also ties into broader themes around female progression, and what happens when women have children and take career breaks, and whether this affects their confidence in progressing into senior roles.”

As Wormald observes, an over-representation of senior men is not an HR-specific issue. Examination of ONS statistics in 2015 found that women earned narrowly more than men, on average, until the age of 35, suggesting that the biggest factor in stalling progression is becoming a mother. Yet HR does at least have the virtue of boasting a smaller overall gender pay gap than most other professions (just 9 per cent at a senior level, and positive for women in part-time or certain junior roles, according to ONS figures released ahead of the introduction of gender pay gap reporting in 2016). And there are questions around the recruitment and progression of members of ethnic minorities and those with disabilities – as well as ongoing ageism – that cut across all business functions and sectors and must also be addressed.

“We need to shift the focus of the question; instead of asking ‘do men feel excluded?’ ask ‘what can we do about inclusion?’” Williams says. “If you’re asking what you can do to make people feel included in a profession – and that means men, people with different ethnic backgrounds, and people of different sexualities and gender orientations – that subtle shift makes such a difference to the way you approach these issues.

“Should we worry about quotas, and spending time and effort dragging different sections of society into the profession, or should we just be making it so awesome that everyone wants to be a part of it?”

This is a compelling point. But it is part of HR’s recognised remit to address diversity issues. Furthermore, if we ‘normalise’ gender ratios in HR departments – whether by design or otherwise – what might that do to the under-representation of women in the business as a whole?

McKearney is not alone in wondering how far it is appropriate to probe the matter. “If you pose the question ‘why are there so few women’ in sectors like accountancy or engineering, it seems an entirely appropriate thing to investigate,” he says. “But given that men already have so much privilege in many aspects of their lives, there’s an automatic shift towards ‘why should we even bother to investigate it?’ Does it matter that they are not so heavily represented in this one profession – especially as there is still so much to be done around female representation?”

Others say there are positive signs of progress among young professionals entering the workforce today, who are less likely than ever to see gender as a key point of difference and to believe diversity should be an organisational imperative. With continuing work to explain HR to young people before they enter the workforce – such as the Inspiring the Future programme that takes HR professionals into schools to share career knowledge – stereotypes can be challenged over time.

“Provided the job is being done well, that’s what matters most,” Taylor concludes. “But by embracing broad principles that help us challenge barriers and encourage and celebrate differences, we can create better, more inclusive workplaces that benefit everyone. HR has a real opportunity to lead on this agenda and role model to the wider business, community and society.”

One day, in this vision, gender at work will be at best an irrelevance. Until we get there, this debate is a long way from finished.

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