Throwing Stones From a Glass House | Is HR Sexist?


They say that if you live in a glass house you shouldn’t throw stones. Working as I do in the HR profession I therefore often feel like we are throwing boulders whilst nervously staring up at the glass roof above and wondering when it will come crashing in. I say this because the HR profession suffers from a not so secret discrimination problem that few in the profession seem willing or able to tackle. Namely the acute gender imbalance within the profession. 

The HR profession and its representative professional body -the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development- are often tasked with owning the wider equality and diversity agenda. It’s a laudable objective to pursue. But to own such an agenda demands an unimpeachable level of integrity that the HR profession currently falls a very long way short of. 

recent review of gender imbalance in the HR profession revealed that around 79% of the profession are female and just 21% are male. These figures have barely improved for a number of years. It’s hardly a great platform from which to operate as custodian of the equality and diversity agenda. In fact some outside of the HR profession might even say that it is grossly hypocritical for HR to not get its own house firmly in order before telling others what they ought to be doing. Puzzled by this stubborn and seemingly intransigent problem I recently conducted some unscientific research amongst fellow HR professionals via Linkedin. The comments that were provided made for very interesting reading.

I posted an open question on the Linkedin HR Professionals UK forum asking why there is such a pronounced HR imbalance within the HR profession and whether this undermined credibility of the function. Initially there were almost no comments on the thread. This came as a surprise to me as the group has over 36,000 members. Surely in the current anti-discrimination climate all such topics should be treated in the same way? I found myself wondering whether one of the many female-centric issues such as returning to work following childbirth or the outrageous lack of females working on company boards would have attracted a similar level of apathy.

Slowly -starting with a single male contributor- a number of interesting comments began to emerge. Some subsequent female contributors appeared to belittle the issue by simply stating that the best person for a given job should get it. In theory this is right. In practice it often doesn’t happen this way. I queried whether the same laissez faire approach should be used in relation to contemporary feminist topics such as those mentioned above (the tackling of which all have my full support incidentally). My response led to one female respondent implying that I approved of discriminatory practices. Perhaps men can only discriminate and not be discriminated against, in the eyes of some.

Some comments were provided by male HR professionals who felt that they have been denied opportunities due to women comparators being considered more suitable. In the alternative, a number of female contributors stated that they had seen men take the majority of senior HR roles within organisations. Perhaps, it was felt, due to perceptions of women being unable to make important strategic decisions. This all reminded me very much of a discussion I had with Brendon Batson at the Professional Footballers’ Association in 1995 when I was writing a dissertation for my first degree. He stated that during the racist nadir of 1970s black players were generally made in to winger or strikers because they were deemed to lack the intelligence needed to be a centre back or midfield play maker. It occurred to me that a similar sub-conscious bias (or possibly conscious bias) probably still exists in industry when it comes to perceptions of the HR profession. If it doesn’t exist, the perception amongst at least some female professionals is that it does. I tend to agree with them. 

So what else is driving the skewed gender imbalance within the HR profession? It was pointed out that many men who enter the profession only do so after working in operational roles. I suppose that this is exactly what happened in my case. I worked as an operational manager after completing a graduate scheme and then studied HR as a professional discipline before joining the profession very deliberately as an HR strategist. Many female HR practitioners perhaps do begin their careers in general administrative roles and then “fall” in to the profession later on. Not all though. I have worked with many senior female HR professionals who have studied HR as an undergraduate then post-graduate and chose the profession very much on purpose. As with the rest of the issue in hand there is, therefore, no simple or sweeping generalisation to be found.

One thing I have consistently seen though is that HR professionals are generally paid far less relative to comparable professions. For example let’s say a HR Business Partner is being paid £60,000 within a given organisation. I would say with a strong degree of confidence that a comparable role such as a Management Accountant will be earning £70,000 upwards. Is this because the Management Accountant adds significantly more value than their HR peer? Or is it because the HR profession -with its major female bias- is less valued? 

Personally speaking if I were working outside of the HR profession right now I would want to understand HR’s mandate for championing the equality and diversity agenda. I would want to know why so few men work in the profession and yet so many of the most senior positions are held by men. Something unjust and unnatural is undoubtedly going on. I would probably also want to know why groups such as recruitment and even training teams -both inside and outside of organisations- are almost exclusively female. When I was able to understand a legitimate reason for these and other irregularities I might then start to applaud the legitimacy of the equality and diversity agenda that the HR profession rather hypocritically professes to represent. 

But whilst many discriminatory practices are rightly being challenged by the HR profession, the lack of focus on its own gender imbalance is almost incredible. In fact the relative quiescence and even silence in many quarters is totally deafening. As a direct result the HR profession runs the very real risk of seeing its ivory tower of equality sinking and perhaps disappearing in to the moral authority quicksand it has been built on. Until the profession gets to grips with this deeply embarrassing issue the stones thrown back at it will eventually come crashing through the already cracked and damaged glass roof above.

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