The Feminization of HR

It's no secret that women HR professionals are outnumbering men, but is the trend something to be concerned about?

Thursday, March 1, 2012
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When Susan Gunn embarked on a career in human resources at Montreal-based Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. in 1992, she was surrounded by men. By her own admission, the majority of women in the function were "admins."

That didn't hamper Gunn's ambitions, though, as she remained with the wine and spirits company for 12 years, eventually working her way up to vice president of human resources.

In the years that followed, Gunn served in a variety of HR roles at Revlon, WillisGroup Holdings Ltd. and the Hay Group. This January, she reached the very top of an HR organization when she was appointed vice president of human resources and global head of HR for Wayne, Pa.-based Gardner Denver Inc., a global manufacturer of industrial compressors, blowers, pumps, loading arms and fuel systems.

While Gunn's accomplishments are impressive, she is far from the only woman making her mark in human resources. By all accounts, women now dominate the HR profession, comprising 71 percent of HR managers, according to the Forbes List of the Top 10 Best-Paying Jobs for Women in 2011.

That finding is mirrored in a recent study by HRxAnalysts, a Bodega Bay, Calif.-based analyst firm covering the HR industry. What HR Thinks and Feels: The 2011 HRxAnalysts Psychographic Survey of HR Professionals reveals that women now account for 69 percent of all HR professionals.

It's a trend that's been four decades in the making and is visible in both the private and public sectors. According to the Washington-based Office of Personnel Management, women held just 30 percent of federal government HR jobs in 1969. By 1988, that number had more than doubled, soaring to 71 percent.

The presence of women in the profession has become so ubiquitous that even the phrase "women in HR" is an oxymoron, says Tim Sackett, executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a Lansing, Mich.-based contingent-staffing firm.

"Everyone knows the HR profession is dominated by women," says Sackett. "When I interact with HR in Fortune 500 organizations, it's mostly women."

Women's domination of HR has even extended to the CHRO ranks, despite the persistent belief that men still occupy the vast majority of the top jobs. Sixty-seven percent of all vice president of HR posts are now held by women, according to the HRxAnalysts survey.

And while only 43 percent of CHRO positions in Human Resource Executive®'s 2012 Top 100 list of the nation's largest companies are held by women, when you consider that the HR pipeline is predominantly female, the likelihood that women will soon take over the CHRO ranks -- even at those large companies -- is high, some say.

"Most of the candidates to pick from for the top jobs are increasingly female," says Michael Peel, vice president of human resources and administration for Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "To me, it's an inevitability that, if you look 10 years out, the overwhelming number of top HR people will be female."

Lest anyone think this is just a U.S. phenomenon, the number of female HR professionals in the United Kingdom rose steadily from 1997, when it stood at 64 percent, to 2007, when it hit a record-high of 79 percent, according to XpertHR's HR/Personnel Salary Survey. In Canada, data from the Toronto-based Human Resources Professionals Association reveals that the percentage of Canadian HR posts held by women rose from 50 percent in 1971 to 75 percent today.

"HR is an astonishing place where women have been free to make their mark in the workplace," says John Sumser, principal analyst at HRxAnalysts. "HR is a paragon of success for women who dominate the ranks at every level."

What is it about HR that attracts so many women to the function? Do females possess certain skills and traits that inherently make them better HR practitioners? Or was the profession merely the first to offer women opportunities to advance in the corporate world? And what does this female domination mean to the profession? Does HR need to seek more gender balance among its own ranks? Or is this all much ado about nothing?

Inherently Female

The news that HR has become a female-dominated profession came as no surprise to Peel. He has been witnessing a shift toward an estrogen-powered HR function for years.

From 1991 to 2007, Peel worked at Minneapolis-based General Mills Inc., where he served as senior vice president for global human resources and later as executive vice president. There, Peel estimates, his HR staff was two-thirds female. In his current position at Yale, he says HR is 88 percent female. As for why so many women are flocking to HR, he's not entirely sure, although he suspects the function plays to strengths that are inherently female.

Tracy McCarthy agrees. As senior vice president of human resources for SilkRoad technology inc., a Chicago-based talent-manager provider, McCarthy has spent nearly a quarter century working in various HR posts at Corporate Express, Lakeview Technology, Collections Etc. and InterAct Public Safety. Over the years, she has witnessed a definite shift toward HR becoming female-dominated. She credits women's natural talents for driving their interest in the field.

"On a broad level, the skills and qualities of a successful HR professional lend themselves naturally to traditional female traits," says McCarthy. "Creativity, whole-picture thinking, and really using those [emotionally intelligent] skills -- the intuition and feelings -- to gather information and read nonverbal cues and negotiate differently than men, it's really that right-brain thinking that women are good at."

Another skill that may give women a competitive edge is the natural ability to juggle a slate of responsibilities and shift gears quickly. Although many men are certainly capable of this as well, for women, it's often more of a work/life necessity.

"In their daily lives, women have to multitask across a lot of different things just to keep moving," says Gunn. "That same skill set is called upon in human resources. No day is ever the same. You never know what you are going to walk into when you start your day in an HR capacity."

Two decades ago, many women made the move from education to HR in what Rhonda Taylor, executive vice president and chief people officer for Atlanta-based Cox Communications, calls a "natural transfer of skills." The transition from teaching to training was driven by a "similar skill set," she says, thus creating a cluster of women in HR comparable to that which has traditionally been seen in education.

"That doesn't mean those skills are [possessed] by women only," says Taylor. "But if you look at the educational field, you might have found, at a certain point in time, there were more women there and that led to a good transfer of skills to this area."

One feminine trait that may lead women to be effective teachers and HR practitioners is their natural proclivity to nurture, says Sumser. Not only does this attribute make women better at helping a group of people optimize their performance, it also enables them to effectively manage the interpersonal conflicts that encroach on the workplace.

"People have bad times and that interferes with how they feel about each other and how they work together," says Sumser. "Somebody has to be the central lubricant, and that typically falls to HR."

Never one to shy away from controversy, Sumser goes so far as to brand HR a "mom role." Much like a mom typically tends to matters that are less than desirable at home, Sumser says, the HR mom often finds herself handling "all the crap work that nobody else will do in the organization." He cites a recent conversation with a female HR professional whose duty had been to perform housekeeping duties in the workplace.

Sumser is fully aware he is inviting controversy with such statements, but he believes that pointing out such observations is crucial to a better understanding of the HR function and those who work in it.

"People don't like the fact that I would characterize [HR] as nurturing and as a primarily female stereotype, but I don't see what the alternatives are," he says. "This is one of those conversations that people don't want to have, but it's really illuminating and helpful for moving the profession forward."

That's not to suggest female HR practitioners are any less qualified than their male counterparts. On the contrary, Peel says, the best HR candidates he sees these days are women. Likewise, Robert Perkovich, visiting assistant professor in the department of management and director of the Master of Science in HR program at DePaul University in Chicago, says his experience has been that women are simply better at performing core people-focused HR duties than men.

Aiming High

It may be that women gravitated toward careers in HR because it was the first function to offer them opportunities to advance. For many companies, the appointment of a female HR chief marks the first time a woman has encroached on the C-suite.

"If there's a woman in the boardroom, it's likely she's in HR," says Sumser. "That's the place in the organization where the glass ceiling is the thinnest."

According to Gunn, many companies have actively sought out women for the senior-vice-president-of-HR spot because they felt the C-suite was too male-dominated.

"Some companies actually say, 'We've got too many men in the C-suite; we need some balance; we need somebody to help us think differently,' " says Gunn. "They recognize that having women as part of their senior-executive team provides different perspectives that they might not be seeing."

While there's little doubt that women bring a different perspective to the C-suite, Fred Foulkes, professor of organizational behavior and director of the Human Resources Policy Institute at the Boston University School of Management, believes many organizations opened up the senior-management team to women in response to pressure from shareholders and other outside organizations. Since the pipeline was already full of female candidates, it was relatively easy to diversify the team by promoting a woman to the top HR post.

"If you are a major company and you are looking to make some progress, it's easier to make it on the HR side than in functions like finance or IT because there are more women who are ready and available," says Foulkes. "Then, you have white males who have been preparing for the job who say, 'This is a closed-door operation all of a sudden.' "

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Seeking Balance

Women's dominance of HR has led to growing concerns about the homogeneity of the profession. While Gunn may have been surrounded by men in her early days in HR, these days, she is more apt to harbor concerns about the lack of men in the profession.

It's a conversation she frequently has with her husband -- Sandy Gunn, senior vice president of human resources for Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. -- around the kitchen table. "I worry that the pendulum has swung a little too far," says Susan Gunn. "Having a balance of both genders adds to the dynamics of the profession and the ability to garner different views and opinions and thoughts."

The Gunns are not alone in their concern. "The Gender Balance in HR," a survey of 1,354 HR professionals undertaken in 2008 by HRPA and Canadian HR Reporter, found roughly half of Canadian HR practitioners are worried about the imbalance of the profession -- and are pondering if they should take action to remedy the situation.

When asked if the high proportion of women in human resources is something the HR profession should be concerned about, exactly 50 percent of respondents said they either agree or strongly agree. Likewise, 51 percent agreed the HR profession should seek to actively recruit more men.

"There is a general agreement that it would be a good thing if there was a better gender balance," says Claude Balthazard, director of HR excellence for HRPA. "There is a definite notion that HR should mirror the population it serves."

While organizations may not publicize their interest in bringing more testosterone into the HR ranks, Sackett says it's not unusual for him to pick up the phone and have someone ask him to find them a male CHRO candidate.

Such requests don't come as a surprise to Sackett, who formerly worked in HR at both Applebee's and ShopKo. Interviewing for an HR position at the Target Corp. nearly 10 years ago, Sackett proudly espoused many of the findings from his master's thesis on women in management, only to be told quite bluntly, "I don't need another woman on my team. I need more men. I need diversity."

That mantra is echoed by McCarthy, who is currently trying to recruit a male HR generalist for her team. Admittedly, that task may be easier said than done because many men who do opt for a career in HR gravitate toward specialties such as recruiting or more technical areas of the function, McCarthy says.

At one point, she tried to mentor a male recruiter who aspired to a generalist role. In the end, however, it just wasn't a good fit. She believes that's because men would rather work in areas that are more "black and white" and easily measurable, rather than deal with employee-relations matters.

Gunn had a similar experience during her tenure as CHRO at WillisGroup, where she endeavored to diversify the HR team. Eventually, she achieved a 60/40 gender balance, but it wasn't an easy proposition, particularly when it came to finding male HR generalists.

"The men on my team primarily trended into the compensation arena where that analytical, logical mind-set was brought to bear," says Gunn. "They definitely problem-solved differently than their female counterparts, which adds to the dynamics of the team."

Looking forward, it's hard to predict whether HR will remain female-dominated or if an increasing number of men will enter the profession. On the one hand, the sheer number of women graduating from the country's top HR programs seems to point to a continued female domination of the field.

At DePaul, for example, women dominate the Master of Science in HR program, accounting for roughly 66 percent of this year's students, according to Perkovich.

What's more, the HR pipeline remains full of women. That, alone, could lead to a continued female dominance, says Sackett, simply because it's basic human nature to hire, mentor and promote those who are most like oneself. In other words, a woman-dominated profession will beget an even-more-woman-dominated profession.

At the same time, there is a growing belief that the 21st-century HR function will naturally attract a more diverse slate of candidates, including more men. Taylor points to the need for more analytics and technical skills, while Sackett cites the shift from administrative to strategic as a key driver in bringing more men into the profession.

"You don't see a lot of male administrative assistants because they are culturally pushed to business-strategy types of roles," says Sackett. "As HR becomes more strategic, it becomes more attractive for men to come into the profession because they feel they can have an impact there."

Jill Smart, chief human resource officer and member of the global management committee at Chicago-based Accenture, disagrees, saying the fact that HR is now considered a key player at the senior table will attract both men and women to the profession.

Likewise, Peel says, the shift to a more strategic HR has essentially moved hand-in-hand with the increase in female HR professionals. Therefore, it's unlikely men will suddenly start flocking to HR due to some theoretical perception of its newfound importance.

"I just don't see any correlation between HR being more strategic and there being more gender balance," says Peel. "Frankly, I see just the opposite. HR has been on a path over the past two decades to become a more strategic partner to the leadership structure of the organization, yet it seems to be trending more heavily to females."

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