HR has a secret (or perhaps it's no secret at all): As a profession, HR has a gender diversity problem.
When we think of the need for gender diversity, we usually think about professions where males dominate, but in HR, 73.3% of managers are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Diversity issue works both ways — and having a profession that is so heavily dominated by one gender isn't a good thing, as so much research indicates.
In fact, one report found found that companies in the top 25% for gender diversity also are 21% more likely to have above average profitability than companies in the bottom 25%.
How did we get here?
When Jeff Kortes, an employee retention consultant, began working in the profession in 1979, unions were strong, the manufacturing industry was the mainstay, and HR was largely male, he told HR Dive in an interview.
There were two segments of the profession, he said: personnel and industry or labor relations, and the perceived value of each side was clear, he said. "One side was more shuffling paperwork and the other side was where the rubber met the road. It was the grievances, the negotiations — those kind of things, and those were the jobs that paid well."
There weren't a lot of women in manufacturing anyway, Kortes said, and as unions and manufacturing jobs began to decrease, and male labor relations leaders began to retire, their clerical assistants, which were typically women, began to take on more responsibility, Kortes said. With its emphasis on administration, personnel was considered women's work, and men were not interested in participating in work that was not as highly valued.
A woman's place is in ... HR?
With an initial focus on administrative tasks, HR developed into the function that focused on compliance, Karen Crone, chief human resources officer at Paycor told HR Dive.
"The function matured through much more of an employee relations, administrative, compliance function, which at the time, lended itself more to females in the workplace than perhaps men," she said. "It wasn't considered to be competitive like sales or analytical like an engineer."
If you have diversity of thought, that's when you get creativity, collaboration that drives success in the organization.
Executive director of HR for LaRosa's Inc.
Fast forward to today, and the HR function has evolved significantly more. "Even if you look back 20 years, I think the profession was more on the underside of the business," Crone said. "Today, the profession is more on the top side of the business, meaning it is more of a leading indicator of your success, more so than it is just a kind of back office function."
The changing role of HR reflects the changing role businesses have with their employees, Crone said. Organizations were once more patriarchal, but now, inclusion, collaboration and the desire for employees to have a voice has been an impetus for change, Crone said.
That change in organizations has put the spotlight on attracting, retaining, developing and motivating the employee — HR's concentration. And some have suggested that the underpinnings of these shifts — HR's increasing use of data, for example — will right the ship.
But now that HR seems to be getting its seat at the table, do we really need to worry that the profession is predominantly female? Lack of gender diversity in HR isn't necessarily the problem, Crone said, but perhaps an opportunity to ensure you're as inclusive as possible to get the best ideas and the right mix of characteristics.
Steve Browne, executive director of HR for LaRosa's Inc. added that it's not as important to have gender diversity as it is to have diversity of thought. "If you have diversity of thought, that's when you get creativity, collaboration that drives success in the organization," he told HR Dive.
It's worth noting that the seat at the table has been well-earned by female HR leaders, Kortes said. “I look at female HR directors. They truly have a seat at the table. They are influential because they are good — they speak the language of business. I don't think it has to do with if you're a man or woman. If you have the ability to speak the business and if you can do that, then you're going to have a seat at the table."
Room for improvement
As HR continues to evolve and impact businesses, it becomes an attractive field for anyone, Kortes said, explaining that it draws people who want to use both hard and soft skills. Crone agreed: "I think people are attracted to the problems that are being solved, regardless of their gender," she said.
But awareness of the burgeoning opportunities the HR field holds may not be widely known, Crone added. Although leaders understand HR's influence because of the discussions that are happening in the boardroom, early career professionals may not see it as much, she said; creating transparency between people matters and business matters and making that more tangible would help people learn more about HR and perhaps be more attracted to it.
Advice for the next generation
While the stereotype persists that women succeed in HR because of their natural affinity to relationship building, men who want to work in HR do need to be able to play well with others, Browne said. "Can you spend an entire day in the middle of people? If not, don't get into HR," he said.
And he cautioned against what some might consider stereotypical male behavior. "If you want things to be absolute, black or white, HR is not for you," Browne said. Someone who needs to be take sides and think in terms of winners or losers — which men are often taught to do — may not be a good fit because HR is more about problem resolution than competition, he said.
Regardless of gender, there is room for many skills in HR, Browne says. "You can be accountable and empathetic," he said, noting the importance of mixing compassion and self-awareness. The HR leader has to be willing to disagree with senior leaders when necessary, Browne said. Not to be belligerent, but to provide a different opinion, he said. "If you have those characteristics, HR is the field for you."