Roundtable debate: why are there so few men in HR?

Last August Personnel Today transcribed a women-only HR roundtable debate at which the participants discussed the factors that prevent women getting ahead in business. Well now it’s the men’s turn to ponder why there are so few men in HR.

Roundtable panel

  • Chair, Keith Liddiard, deputy chief executive, Centre for High Performance Development
  • Chris Battersby, HR manager – UK Transmission, National Grid
  • Simon Foster, senior client director, Centre for High Performance Development
  • Gerard Hussey, director – policy, employee relations and diversity, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Rob Willock, group editor, Personnel Today
  • Julian Wood, director – development, marketing and communications, National Audit Office

HR employs about three times as many women as men. But does it matter if your HR department is not reflective of the overall gender mix of the business?

Chris Battersby: At National Grid the problem is more in engineering than in HR. There are areas of the business that are all-male and that is more of a concern for me.

Gerard Hussey: I don’t think it is correct that your constituent HR function has to represent your population – that if the organisation is 50:50, then HR should be 50:50. What you need are people in the organisation that are inclusive and have an open view. I wouldn’t be happy if people think that, just because I am not a woman, I do not understand how women work, the challenges and the pressures they feel.

Julian Wood: As long as you have a breadth of skills and behaviours, then it shouldn’t really make a difference. The challenge for us, as HR leaders, is to ensure we have those skills and behaviours, whether or not they are gender based.

Hussey: We would like to have more men in HR, but we don’t see it as such a major problem that we have to take a positive action. There is something problematic about having too many of one gender, especially where it is a very high percentage. I think 75% female entry into HR is too high and you do get that sense there is something wrong here.

We have initiatives to get more women into science and to get more men into marketing. But I don’t think there is a similar initiative anywhere to get men into HR. The business worries more about imbalances in science and marketing than about an imbalance in HR. In a busy world, you have to be choosey about what you focus your time on.

Rob Willock: Okay – I’ll push you further. Imagine having an all black workforce and an all white HR department, would that be different?

Wood: It would be flagged quicker. But again, would it make any difference to the interactions? It’s in the eye of the beholder. What is the workforce’s reaction? Is it what they expect? Is there any evidence it is a less effective HR function?

Keith Liddiard: It is really about good people. Do we think that because HR is 75% women, that we have good men not getting into the profession. There must be great men out there who would be fantastic in HR, but who are simply not getting in. Why is that not a burning platform?

Willock: HR is potentially missing out on half the talent pool. Would HR as a function be better if it had the whole workforce to choose from, as opposed to pretty much just the female half of the workforce?

People make that argument in construction or engineering, and say: “Look at all the potentially great engineers we are not employing.” Couldn’t you say the same thing about HR?

Hussey: We don’t know, do we? But it does seem to be a missed opportunity. I suppose in an HR meeting where there are very few males you occasionally wonder, would the debate be very different if there were more men in the discussion?

How can we address this imbalance? Is there a short-term fix by offering men in operational roles secondments in HR as business partners.

Battersby: I don’t think I have ever heard of that. HR could benefit from having some good people from the business to cycle in and cycle out again.

Simon Foster: The problem is that HR is just not one of the boxes you have to tick on the way up.

Wood: We second people to corporate affairs area to broaden their understanding of the organisation. It would be interesting to see the reaction to the idea of seconding front line audit staff into HR. I suspect it would be seen as taking focus away from the front line.

Liddiard: There is sometimes the perception that HR is all about the softer, people relations based stuff. But a lot HR people say it is the toughest environment, where you have difficult conversations with people every day.

One of our HR clients told me: “I need tough people here, I do not care who they are, they just need to be tough as nails.” And she was tough as nails. Of course they need to be good at communication and relationships and having conversations, but they are rarely easy, soft conversations.

Willock: I think it speaks volumes to say people would not see a secondment to HR as adding value to their career portfolio. Any one of us round this table could convince almost anybody that actually it would. We need to do a PR job on the function to prove that a stint in HR, for any executive, could make them a better manager.

So what is the problem with HR’s image that is preventing business people valuing it as a function and stopping some people, mostly men, even considering it as a career option?

Battersby: HR is often not visible to the average person who works in an organisation. So how can we expect them, as parents, to influence their kids to go into HR?

Liddiard: I have three kids who cannot quite grasp what I do. So I talk to them about a coach improving a soccer star’s performance, because it is tangible.

Wood: Speaking as someone who came into HR from a different background, there is something about the breadth of what HR does at a strategic level in the business, it is almost invisible at the entry level of the organisation, and very difficult to explain.

How do you explain change management to someone who does not have any experience?

Hussey: I make a deliberate effort to ensure that people understand what I do. I typically say: “I work in human resources. What that means is…” because I assume they will misunderstand.

I learnt this a long time ago from my daughter. When she was seven her teacher asked: “What does your daddy do?” And she said: “You know people don’t always work very well together, well my daddy’s job is to ensure that they do work well together.”

Foster: There are not many other disciplines within an organisation where you need to explain what it means.

Battersby: It depends on the person you talk to as well. If the person you talk to is at a senior level in an organisation, they will have more understanding of what you do. If they are lower down in an organisation, they do not have a clue.

Liddiard: Okay, we are saying that HR has poor PR, but ultimately there are plenty of women saying, “I will do that”, and lots of men saying, “I won’t do that.”

Hussey: I suppose it could be something as simple as when people think of HR, they think it is about the relationships, and women are more drawn to that than men.

HR actually needs to position itself to say managers now work in a very complex environment. They have to achieve their targets and work within the framework of a whole raft of health and safety legislation, employment legislation, issues of equality. And our job is to help them manage in that very complex environment.

Wood: The flip side of that is that the more HR, in the eyes of the business, becomes associated with an increasingly regulatory environment, the more it is seen as prescriptive Ð “you must do this”.

Hussey: But corporate social responsibility is becoming really important. I get the impression that the next generation is much more bothered about it. So HR should seek to own that piece, and maybe the green debate as well, to give itself a more positive role in business.

Willock: HR also has to gauge whether the business is ready for this stuff. It is the sort of thing that could cause HR embarrassment if the management is not in tune with it. You might say the management should be in tune. But if it is not and HR comes bounding in, saying work/life balance, and employee fitness, and CSR and the environment are important and the management don’t get it, HR is getting ahead of itself.

Hussey: The way to do this is not to say to the business: “You must do this.” It has to be a pull programme. Roll it out, do a couple of pilots and let people say: “Give me more.”

Women seem better than men at achieving work-life balance; or at least aiming for work life balance. Is this something to encourage among members of both sex?

Hussey: Women are better at making life choices than men. There’s the classic syndrome of the man who reaches 60 after a very successful career, but he does not know his wife and his family; and she says: “I am off. Now you are at home, I do not want to be around.” He has given all his life to his career.

Research suggests that men get kicked off by power and women by relationships. Conversations between men rarely last a long time. Two women can have a phone conversation that goes on for hours. I am not denigrating either situation, and these are generalisations, but they are pretty accurate. Women like conversations and relationships, while men tend to be very competitive.

Wood: We are losing some women to maternity leave and not getting them back, and some to other organisations. The people on our future leaders programme tend to be 25 to 35, and they believe that work life balance is not a nice-to-have, it is an expected part of their career. And if we cannot provide that, then they will look to organisations that can.

We have something of an hourglass structure for women [with lots in junior roles and good representation at senior roles, but few in middle management]. If we cannot find ways of ensuring that broadens out in the middle, then we are losing some of our best talent.

Hussey: The other factor is location. To progress in our organisation, which is a global business, it is mandatory that you relocate to get experiences outside of one area, and that is not always easy to do for women. If a woman has a partner and he is earning the same or more, is he going to up sticks and head away for 3 years?

Wood: Are we minimising this level of attrition through what we are doing as organisations. Some women in our organisation feel they have to balance both roles, as primary carer and primary breadwinner, and it is a difficult psychological challenge to maintain that and reach the top.

One woman told me she had to live with emotional guilt every day about whether she is doing enough in her domestic caring role for my children as her career progresses. But she also felt that if she spent less time at work or went part time, she would not have succeeded. This is undoubtedly a tension for women heading for senior positions.

Battersby: We have tried to take a conscious decision to allow part time working. One of my team works 22 hours a week. Interestingly, it was a man who allowed her to do that. Her previous boss, who was a woman, was dead against it.

Hussey: The way to deal with this is to have role modelling. We have women who work part time and I know they sometimes feel disloyal that they are not at work. Contractually, they are not working that day, so they should not feel guilty. We are not paying them for it.

Or you have a crisis situation and someone says: “We will meet again on Friday.” And the person has to say: “I am sorry but I will not be here.” It is almost like an apology. I will personally have a word to ensure that the person does not feel apologetic.

It is our problem, not theirs. So I think it is all about the culture, ensuring your senior people are attuned to it, aware of it, and show the reinforcing behaviours that are appropriate.

Wood: One of our female board members works four days a week. I think that is a positive role model. It says you can operate at this level and still balance your work and your home life.

Willock: Does that breed potentially some resentment among the workforce? Especially if flexible working is more the reserve of the female employees, do some of the men working five days a week and seeing part-time women progress in the organisation feel short-changed?

Hussey: Some people feel that our company is too supportive of females who have children, and this is coming from both men and women. So women who are married or have a partner, have a life outside of work but do not have children, do not feel they get the same sort of support. Though actually our policy does not in any way discriminate.

Liddiard: Do we men need to get better at making life choices?

Hussey: There is no point being really happy in your job and very productive if you find the relationship side is a disaster, or no point being happy at work if you are unfit.

Do women suffer in the workplace from a perceived lack of gravitas and authority? And what can business do about this?

Wood: When my predecessor moved on, most of the candidates that they interviewed were female, and none of them were appointed. Part of the reason was because of the perception that they lacked charisma in leadership. The board – themselves gender balanced – were looking for that gravitas and the ability to build confidence.

Battersby: It is about confidence. A number of women who have worked for me have tended not to have the gravitas required in a male dominated environment, not to push the boundaries and get noticed.

Traditionally the hard edged HR practitioners – those with a strong industrial relations background – tend to be male. And when it comes to the big jobs, requiring that gravitas, the people making tough decisions tend to be male.

Wood: I guess the question is: to what extent can we actually do anything about this. Do we need to do something about it, or do we simply accept that there are social factors that will always limit progression in that way?

If we can see 11 desirable behaviours, for example, and we can see that there is a difference between the genders in terms of which behaviours, based on research rather than stereotypes, to favour, that is actually a basis for an intelligent discussion how you broaden that out.

On the basis every business needs to understand that all 11 of those behaviours are necessary for its success. We can then move on from the debate that: “This stuff is all touchy feelie;” or “Women are better at relating,” to how do we help a team pull together so that they have a mix of behaviours within them.

Shifting that debate along is something that will in itself help us to address issues around gender and the imbalance that we have.


Liddiard: So if we look at our two desirable outcomes – to have more women in senior management and more men in HR, is it going to be any different in five years time? Are any of the things that we are doing going to change attitudes?

Hussey: There are more women coming into positions that will feed into senior management, so the pool is starting to increase. I think we will have more women at the top. But I do not honestly think at that we will have more men coming into HR as a function unless we can drive specific initiatives like we talked about.

Battersby: The main problem for HR will the time lag between what it is actually doing these days and what it is still perceived to be doing.

Wood: We will see benefits from focussing on a broader range of behaviours, giving fairer chances to everybody to come through. And I think role modelling will be really important. What I really hope for in five years time is to have cracked flexible working and the use of technology that allows people to work more flexibly, and to have greater control over their own working lives.

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