Why are there so many women in HR?

The figures speak for themselves. Seventy-two per cent of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) members are women. Only 28% of the 124,500 membership are men.

Paul Turner, general manager, people, at West Bromwich Building Society, has an HR team of 25. Only three of them are men. He says the imbalance in his team is because men are not attracted into the profession.

But he adds that a more in-depth examination of why that is the case can be controversial. “I hate getting into conversations like this because you are almost forced to generalise and that can be dangerous,” he says.

“HR is generally perceived to be a profession based around people and people skills. Men – and this is too deep a topic to be specific about – tend to be attracted to areas that are more systematic, more structured and more competitive.”

Duncan Brown, assistant director general at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), attributes the high levels of women in HR to educational background.

“In the UK, HR has been associated with a ‘softer’ social science background which tends to attract women, whereas men tend to prefer the ‘harder’ sciences.”

HR’s image and perception has served to turn men off joining the profession, argues Marianne Huggett, associate director at the Work Foundation.

“As far as many people in the outside world are concerned, [HR] is a soft and fluffy job all about social and welfare issues,” she says. “Anyone who gets close to HR knows it is anything but soft,” says Huggett. “But I think the common misconception is something that has, in the past, acted as a disincentive for men to get involved in the profession.”

But Huggett rejects the popular argument that women are more attracted to HR because they are in some way genetically predisposed to the nature of the job. “Maybe there is a slight element of predisposition, but I would be uncomfortable saying it was anything more than minor,” she says.

Welfare roots

To understand why there are more women in HR we must look at the history of the profession, says Angela O’Connor, HR director at the Crown Pro-secution Service.

“The roots of HR go as far back as the late 19th century, when the role of welfare workers was to take care of women and girls in the workforce,” she says. “These welfare workers were all women, and as more women entered the workplace during the two world wars, the number in welfare work increased and their role expanded to include recruitment and training.”

The development from the welfare role to personnel, and then to HR, took place, therefore, in a predominantly female environment – in much the same way, for example, that engineering developed as a mainly male occupation.

And just as small, but increasing, numbers of women have entered engineering over the past few decades, O’Connor believes HR can be seen to be a predominantly female occupation attracting an increasing, but still relatively small, number of men.

No soft option

Unlike Huggett, Turner has more sympathy for the view that women seem to be attracted to caring “people-based” professions such as HR, while men have traditionally preferred professions where success is judged on results.

“In male-dominated professions, such as sales, law or engineering, you can see the number of sales made, or court cases won, or bridges built,” he says. “You can usually see exactly what has been achieved. But in HR, it has not always been easy to measure your achievement.”

Turner also rejects the notion that women prefer HR because it is a soft option. In the difficult areas of HR that managers often shy away from – such as discipline or hard-edged negotiations – he says it is often the women who are prepared to cut to the quick and be decisive.

“HR is a job where the amount of power you have lies in your ability to influence other people, whereas in many other jobs, you have power through position. I think the women who come into HR and do well are particularly good at influencing other people.”

Women also seem to be less precious about positions, says Turner. “I don’t mean that they don’t care about status. I mean that they seem to be more open minded when it comes to moving towards or away from a particular point of argument, whereas men often feel it is a sign of weakness.

“The key HR skills in many areas are the ability to empathise, relate and influence, and use emotional intelligence. I am not suggesting that men don’t have emotional intelligence, but in HR the women who do well have bags and bags of it,” Turner says.

To the casual observer, all of this might make it seem that HR really is a woman’s world. But a closer look at the statistics reveals this is not the case. Women may outnumber men at the lower levels of the profession, but it is a different story at the top.

Glass ceiling

Figures from the Chartered Management Institute reveal a significant pay gap between men and women in middle management HR posts. On average, women earn salaries of 41,000, but men earn 49,000. And while there are fewer men in HR, their relative numbers increase with job seniority. Added to this, only 40% of HR directors are women, so when it comes to promotion, the glass ceiling, it seems, is intact.

Susan Anderson, director of HR policy for the CBI, says HR directors are often male because in the past, women didn’t return to work after having a career break to start a family. Those who put their career on hold, returned to the profession lower down the career ladder. But this is changing and there is room for optimism, she adds.

“There are lots of female HR role models who have reached the top,” says Anderson. “Perceptions are changing, but it should not be the case of saying that unless there is a fifty-fifty split we have failed. That would be a mistake,” she adds.

Companies which fail to promote female HR managers to director level are missing a trick, suggests Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies. But women themselves should do more to promote their cause, she says.

“It’s only recently that HR has begun to be represented at board level in the UK. The views of HR have got to change and many of the women in HR have to think about championing HR and focusing on the impact that it can have on the bottom line.”

Mercer believes good HR practice can have a bigger impact on an organisation’s bottom line than almost anything else. Good people management can account for a 15% positive variation in business performance, whereas something like strategy only accounts for 2%, she explains.

“It has to be thought of in those terms for women in HR to get themselves onto the boards of organisations and start getting people to think about HR when they are thinking of business decisions. The people element has traditionally been thought of last and that attitude has to change.”

Men at the top

When Mercer studied for her CIPD qualification, there were no men on her course. All too often, she says, HR departments are staffed by women, but the director is a man – and often one who has come into HR from another role within the business.

“There is a feeling that anyone can ‘do’ HR, that it is something anyone can pick up. This has led to a lack of professionalism within HR and a lack of focus on business outcomes. It is a challenge for women if they want their careers to be taken seriously and if HR is to be put on the map,” says Mercer.

The development of the HR business partner role, for example, requires business experience and qualifications. This role will give HR more clout within business and should help put it on the map, while at the same time moving the profession away from its soft and fluffy image. But will the emphasis on business experience appeal more to men?

Turner doesn’t think more men will take up such roles. Forward-looking companies are increasingly employing people on merit, rather than according to gender, he says.

“I don’t think it’s an HR issue. I think it’s a general issue around the need to recognise that if you have a quality person going on maternity leave then you want them back, and you want to make sure you keep them.”

O’Connor concurs. She doesn’t believe that a move towards more HR business partner roles will see more men rushing to join the profession.
“This assumes two things,” she says. “First, that women are less business-focused and results-orientated than men. And second, that the ‘soft skills’ for which women have traditionally been valued are not compatible with a strong business focus. I think both assumptions are wrong.”

Feedback from the profession

“Studying on my CIPD course, everyone bar one person was female. HR is about dealing with and developing people, and that can be attractive to women. HR is still perceived as the soft side of business. It would be better if there were more men to balance it out.”
Georgia Wayne, consultant, McCourt Newton

“Women are more social animals than men and, therefore, more attracted to the HR profession. It may be self-perpetuating – if there were more women in senior roles, that could fuel the interest of other women.”
David Regester, managing director, Anne Shaw Consultants

“A lot of HR activity is to do with multi-tasking and juggling work – women can be much better at that than men. There does need to be an influx of male candidates into the profession, especially in the more junior roles.”
Liz Thompson, director, LTHR

“It may be something about the way that some organisations set themselves up. HR is not perceived as a serious business function. There is no machismo in [the function] and that appeals more to women.”
Mark Harrison, consultant, Kineo

“The days of demanding industrial/employee relations roles created macho environments that appealed to men. Now HR is focused on developing, engaging and supporting people, it is more attractive to women.”
Paul Pagliari, senior director, HR, Immigration and Nationality Directorate

“I think it comes back to the traditional personnel and welfare department. Women are a lot better at working as part of that than men. The level of pay might also be an issue.”
Debbie Handley, HR adviser, Mellon Analytical Solutions

“Women are more attracted to the humanist side of the work. More men would create a better balance, but they need to be excited and have a passion for the work. Having a lot of women in HR is not a bad thing, unless there are barriers for them to make the step to HR director level.”
Craig White, station training and development officer, Royal Air Force

“HR is a job where the amount of power you have lies in your ability to influence other people, whereas in many other jobs, you have power through position. Women who come into HR and do well are particularly good at influencing people.”
Paul Turner, general manager, people, West Bromwich Building Society

Starting out in HR – a woman’s view

Mathilda Holgersson, trainee HR officer with the London & Quadrant Housing Group, studied psychology at university. It was her experience as a student that first fired her enthusiasm for HR and prompted her to choose it as a career.

“When I started university, I didn’t really know what to do. But I found psychology interesting and it opened my eyes to HR. I was struck by the fact that it means dealing with people, which is a major part of the job I enjoy a lot.”

Now, halfway through her CIPD training at South Bank University, Holgersson says HR is demanding because it requires a good knowledge of so many different areas, including the intricacies of employment law. “I still find it attractive, because there are so many opportunities to specialise.”

Holgersson is unconcerned by statistics that suggest she might find it difficult to reach the higher levels of her profession. “It shouldn’t be like that, but I know that to a degree it is,” she says. “But if you look at organisations with female directors, they often come from an HR background.”

What do you think of your profession?
Why are there more women in HR? Is HR just a woman’s profession? What about the role of men? E-mail ptodcontent@rbi.co.uk

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