Dorothy Dalton: HR – The pink function

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A request for a gender balanced short list usually means a mandate for the inclusion of women. Increasingly frequently in HR searches, the challenge is trying to identify and attract men who in this function, are in relatively scarce supply. Superficial scrutiny of any organogram or company intranet will almost certainly show a predominance of women in the HR function. The exceptions tend to be at the most senior levels which are occupied by men. In the UK, according to research carried out by XpertHR, 75% of the HR function is female. At entry-level, 86% of post holders in the HR profession are female. This percentage drops to 42.5% at director level.  In the U.S. the overall percentages are pretty much the same, where women occupy two-thirds of the HR executive positions. In recent studies carried out in the U.S, the typical H.R. profile is personified by a 47 year old, white woman unless he is a CHRO.

But is there a downside to this trend? Is the lack of gender balance contributing to the seeming lack of relevance of the function that makes it the frequent focus of an international backlash. Today, the very viability of HR is openly debated in the public domain (Why We No Longer Need HR Departments) and at the same time, it is also derided as a being  a “pink ghetto” together with its pink sister function, Public Relations.

But shouldn’t the existence of a strong female talent pool guarantee those senior roles for women? It would seem not, or at least not yet.

Gender Balance

At one time, the HR function certainly provided a great career gateway for entry-level women to embark upon a corporate career compared to other functions. My own career started in the highly unionized steel industry where I was always the only woman in the room. During the last 25 years, there has been a significant evolution and today the function is predominantly female. This is part of a general shift over time from production to knowledge based economies and a general functional evolution of the discipline, leading to what Michele Mees, author of the Balanced Leader, believes to be the ”unsuccessful re-branding” of the function.

Soft support function

Today with the more transactional elements replaced by technology or outsourced to specialist companies, often in low cost labour markets, the focus of the function has now shifted into internal consulting services: leadership coaching, subject matter experts, assessment and development, This leaves aspects of the function that seem to be more attractive to women, where their “soft skills” are more highly valued.

Unfortunately, one of the other comments made about high numbers of organisations is that today HR lacks teeth. With no P & L responsibilities, in many companies the function is relegated to a non-executive role, with barely lip service paid to its contribution. Laurie Ruettimann goes on to say  “What’s worse is that the men who lead HR are often ashamed of the feminization of the function. They try to differentiate themselves from the rank and file HR members by positioning themselves as strategic leaders who are rooted in data.”

Re-cycled CEOs
Gurprriet Singh, Country Head – YSC India, calls in his post CEO HR for retiring CEOs to be recycled as HR Heads to give the function those badly needed teeth by deploying “their best resources to this function”

I posed the same question some time ago to Tim Douglas, ex International HR Director, CSM whose team was all female. “Their view is HR is seen to be about providing support and caring, although they recognise it requires hard-nosed decisions and sometimes very unpleasant ones. They suggest it’s seen to be back to the original ‘welfare’ roots of personnel, and definitely not associated with being influential in big business decisions, hence fewer man are attracted to it. However they also pointed out that HR teams led by men were often more ‘dynamic’ and ‘engaged with business decisions’ and often taken more seriously by leaders”

A female view
Tim’s experience of a male voice carrying greater weight is re-enforced by Michele Mees who recounted a story of the Head of Diversity and Inclusion who tried to put forward an idea “She then got back up from a male colleague, who joined her gender balance team, and asked him to put it on the agenda. Guess what? He only had to ask once. This is in my view a demonstration of (hidden) stereotyping by a male management team.”

She would also support Tim and Gurprriet saying “HR people and departments are often very process driven and they do not come across as begin flexible, agile, quick to respond to market changes (as sales and marketing must be for instance). HR people are not always keen to ‘dive into’ the business, I think this is needed to build up credibility with business leaders. Today I heard the remark from an HR manager that HR people seldom network other than HR events, that they do not take MBA courses, or any other managerial courses apart from their own specialist field. Apparently HR is still a snug comfort zone to be in.”

Correcting the balance
Companies with male dominated cultures (most perhaps?) can successfully recruit women into the HR function without disturbing the masculine order. H.R. is perceived as “soft”, while sales and finance are “tough”. This way via unconscious bias, stereotyping is continued and gender roles are confirmed. It seems that tough decisions or actions performed by an HR woman, will not be perceived as tough and decisive as if they were performed by a man.

Culturally women are expected to exhibit softer skills, while men are expected to be more decisive. The criteria for evaluation is such that even when women are decisive they are not taken seriously, or get caught up in that old double bind as being too “aggressive”.

So until HR qualifications include, and mandate, a solid business base, rather than simply focusing on functional expertise and qualifications, will this situation to be perpetuated? Or with a stronger female talent pipeline will women eventually assume the senior roles to be come true business partners at Board level?

Dorothy Dalton is a global talent management strategist working on both sides of the executive search spectrum from “hire to retire”, specialising in sourcing and developing hard-to-find candidates for executive search firms and international organisations.

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