Women starting to recapture their position at top of HR profession

The latest Cranet results show human resource management (HRM) is again becoming an occupation where women predominate at the more senior levels. The term ‘again’ is used because the early beginnings of this specialism were actually in the provision of welfare services for women.

The ‘welfare secretaries’ – as they were commonly called – were the early pioneers before the First World War, who had to tackle male-dominated workplaces at a time when men occupied virtually all managerial posts.

The Welfare Workers Association was founded in 1913, this being the ancestor of today’s professional association for HR specialists, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Men began to enter the occupation in larger numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, when industrial relations came to be more integrated with other aspects of what was then known as personnel management. They were often appointed to senior roles, although increasingly they were supported by female colleagues at the personnel officer level.

It is clear from the Cranet figures that since the 1990s women have been reaching the more senior levels in greater numbers. The statistics also show that the gender of the senior HR specialist is rela-ted to organisation size: smaller organisations employ more women in the senior HR role, whereas larger companies employ more men in the senior role.

Although there are more women in senior positions now, the background and qualifications of those in these roles have remained much the same. The data shows how the proportion of senior HR specialists with a university degree has remained steady at about 60 per cent, and that the median experience of HR specialists at this level has remained at about 15 years.

In the UK, the subject of the first degree varies considerably, but most commonly it is either business studies or behavioural sciences, or arts/humanities – a trend that has been noted since first researched in the 1992 Cranet survey.

There are a number of possible explanations. If the number of women entering the occupation has been greater over time, this would produce pressures for career advancement, which perhaps are now being satisfied.

Changes in the structure and size of industry and the public sector may also be factors, together with changing workforce demographics, since there are more women entering the workforce, especially in an expanding service sector.

It is also possible that there is now less gender discrimination in HRM, given that the HR function is often the champion of anti-discrimination legislation at the company level.

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