The feminisation of HR

There has been some discussion over the past few days on the femaleness of the HR profession. A couple of weeks ago, John Sumser posted the findings of a US study concluding that HR is a 47 year old white woman. On Friday, XpertHR followed up with some UK survey results showing that the profession is around 75 percent female.

John Sumser comments:

HR is the only predominantly female function in the contemporary organization. It is the beach head of accomplishment in the generational move of women from home to the executive suite. While the oft-repeated stereotype is that men are HR’s decision makers, the truth is that women occupy two thirds of the HR executive seats.

Being a fundamentally female function, HR behaves differently than other parts of the organization. It’s more networky and can be nurturing. It’s natural that development is housed here.

A couple of things to say about this. Firstly, HR is not the only predominantly female function, at least, not in British organisations. The other ‘R’, Public Relations, is also predominantly female and has a similar profile to HR, with men still holding most of the senior roles. Secondly, I’m not sure that HR in UK companies is any more networky and nurturing than it was when there were more men in it. Laurie Ruettimann’s comment struck a chord with me: 

HR has its roots in a male-dominated labor movement. HR was macho. And knowing some of the history and working with those old HR dudes in manufacturing in St. Louis and Chicago, it actually makes no sense that development is housed in a function that was, for most of its history, concerned with reducing labor costs and keeping out unions.

I think HR owns that stuff because there is nowhere else to put it and managers are lazy—not because HR is female.

My sense is that HR has become a lot more female over the past two decades. XpertHR’s Michael Carty is going to dig out some figures on this so I may see my argument blown out of the water but here goes anyway.

I went into HR in the 1980s – well, I actually applied to go into something called Industrial Relations. I had studied a module in industrial relations, run by my university’s fledgling school of management, as a subsidiary to my politics and history degree. My marks were good and I found the subject interesting so, when I found out that companies employed people to do industrial relations, I thought, “OK, I’ll apply for that then.” Such was the rigorous methodology used to determine my career choice.

But timing is everything and, by the time I arrived in the corporate world, a mix of government policy and the general decline of unionised sectors across western economies was effectively abolishing industrial relations. I found plenty of other things to keep me interested in what became the HR function but they weren’t what I thought I’d be doing when I went into the profession.

The shift in emphasis away from adversarial industrial relations and towards assessment, development and talent management seemed to coincide with increasing numbers of women coming into the HR profession. Some of this could simply be due to the comparative rise in employment in the more female service sectors and a general increase in women in management roles but the trend appeared to be more marked in HR. The type of work HR functions began to major in during the 1990s seemed to interest women more than the old industrial relations roles did.

But did it become more networky at the same time? The old Industrial Relations departments were certainly networky. Good IR managers got to know people around the organisation to find out what was going on. It was their job to stop trouble before it started. HR professionals tend to do the same now. Of all people, the HR manager should have a better feel for the mood of his or her part of the business than anyone else. HR isn’t networky because it’s female, it’s networky because that’s an important part of its role. 

Is HR more nurturing? Probably, but only because companies tend to emphasise development more these days. When the profession was more male dominated, people didn’t have coaches and personal development plans. A few senior people were sent on courses and that was it. Has learning and development become more important to organisations because female HR professionals have promoted it or because today’s more complex organisations require it? My money is on the latter.

HR is, as John Sumser says, a beach head. It has been ahead of the curve in getting women into senior roles. Some other functions are seeing rising numbers of women too. Public sector finance departments, for example, are starting to look increasingly female – a third of CIPFA members and 50 percent of its students are women. HR, though, seemed to attract a lot of women sooner.

Perhaps this is because HR functions were less likely to discriminate or perhaps it is because women were more attracted to the type of work. Despite the gender shift, though, HR functions don’t feel that different to how they were two decades ago. As I have said before, if you were to listen in on a conversation between a group of HR managers twenty years ago, a lot of it would sound remarkably similar. Would there more women in the group now? Almost certainly, whatever the industry. Would the people be any more networky and nurturing? I don’t think so.

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6 Responses to The feminisation of HR

  1. Pingback: The feminisation of HR - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Sir

    As promised, I have now had a chance to dig out and analyse the figures on the changing gender profile of HR, looking at the period 1997 to 2011.

    Here’s the link:


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  4. Pingback: My 10 favourite HR blog posts of 2011 - XpertHR's Employment Intelligence blog - XpertHR Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

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