shutterstock_111409727 A team of researchers at Middlesex University, UK and City University of Hong Kong have identified that within the HR profession women make up the majority working at entry level, but only a small minority of those working at the most senior levels. In Hong Kong entry level positions were more gender balanced, with more men achieving senior positions. The study asked a representative sample of nine hundred and eighty three members of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) about their role within their organisations. Within the UK, only 4.2% of men in HR were working in generalist roles. This compares with 30.5% working in managerial HR roles and 38% working at executive level. In contrast, in excess of three times as many women (14.6%) were working in generalist roles with half the proportion of women (19%) working at executive level compared with men.

The profile of the Hong Kong participants was closer to gender balanced at junior level with just under 18% of women and men in the study recording their role as HR generalist. Like the UK sample, women were concentrated in managerial positions, with 47.4% of female participants saying that they were HR managers, compared with just fewer than 40% of men. Around 30% of men reported working at HR executive level, compared with 18% of women. Whilst the study demonstrates that the HR profession is more gender balanced in Hong Kong than in the UK even in Hong Kong there is a troubling disparity at the most senior levels of the profession.

The importance of having women in senior positions within organisations has been championed by the EU, which targets 25% of board members to be women by 2015. The UK has taken a non regulatory route to meeting this target following the recommendations of the Davies report. The 2011 Davies report identified significant financial and organisational benefits of women’s representation at board level.

The report also shed light on the challenge posed by the talent gap where women do not progress to senior roles to the same extent as men. This gap between men and women achieving senior management roles undermines attempts to increase participation of women at the highest levels because the numbers of experienced and qualified women are fewer. This research demonstrates that women and men are not equally distributed through the HR profession. Despite the fact that women make up a higher proportion of managerial level HR professionals (39% compared with 30.5% for men) this does not translate to their achieving executive level at the same rate as their male counterparts. The enormous disparity in the number of women at executive level reflects the trend in the wider economy for women to get into junior and middle management positions but to be unable to achieve executive or board level jobs. It is especially troubling that the HR profession, which is dominated by women, has such a skewed gender profile given that HR professionals are often key players in senior recruitment and advancement decisions. Opinions are divided on the reasons for the lack of advancement from junior to senior management for women. Some suggest that women’s socialisation plays a large part in the ways in which they present their skills and experience to employers. Boys are encouraged to be more outspoken about their accomplishments, and as men to negotiate more assertively around pay, job title and reward. In general women are less vocal about their achievements and less keen to negotiate for development opportunities, promotions and pay rises.

Whilst it is clear from the Futuretrack research that pay gaps exist from the very start of women and men’s careers, some studies have suggested that an important factor is the expectation that women will bear the brunt of caring responsibilities in their home lives. This expectation that women will be more likely than men to take time off to have children and to care for both children and elderly relatives leads to the perception in some quarters that women are less committed to work than their male counterparts. The fact that women have more career breaks than men means that on average they spend less time in the labour market. They are also likely to have to return to work following a career break, which may be challenging due to the perception that their skills may be out of date and structural discrimination against older workers.

Both these difficulties account for some of the difference in the rates at which women are promoted to executive level. Compounding differences in socialisation and career breaks are differences in the way that women and men are sponsored and mentored when they are in the workplace. Respondents to the Davies report consultation argued that men were more often offered mentoring and support which assisted them in strengthening their CV’s and advancing in their chosen careers. The absence of women as role models in senior positions also reinforces existing gender stereotypes and presents barriers to women’s advancement.

Article by Sophie Gamwell, Ian Roper, Paul Higgins and Nancy Jing Yang

The team at Middlesex University are currently looking for organisations and HR practioners to be case studies in their wider research project on HR professionalism. If you and your organisation are interested in participating in the research please email More information about the research can be found at