HR Is Female

On March 30, 2011, in HRExaminer, More2Know, by John Sumser

HR is Female, HRExaminer

Having an extended conversation about the essential femaleness of one particular management discipline is a challenging thing to consider in our cultural environment.

HR Is Female

HR is a 47 year old white woman. She’s married, with kids and has pets that probably aren’t cats. She has either an advanced degree or a nationally recognized certificate.

While HR is widely understood to be a difficult place to sell and do business, it’s worth considering that the problem lies with the sellers, not the buyers.The uniformity of the profession’s angst about salespeople, marketing and vendor performance suggest that there’s something really wrong with the way that vendors see their HR customers.

These are a few of the top level insights from the new HRxAnalysts report, What HR Thinks and Feels: The 2011 HRxAnalysts Psychographic Survey of HR Professionals. Based on nearly 1,000 surveys (250 questions each), the report summarizes the first layer of our enormous database of HR lifestyles, attitudes, political alignment, sales orientation, career choices and other details about the character of HR. Conducted over the course of two years, the study is both valid and reliable. The confidence interval is about 98% and the margin of error is about 2%.

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.

It’s useful to imagine that the people who populate the HR Department are heroes. The function provides work, upward mobility and access to the heart of organizational culture for a class of people with little organizational history.

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.

The essence of HR might be its ability to make clear judgments about really intangible things like personality, potential and match-making. These are stereotypical female things.

Having an extended conversation about the essential femaleness of one particular management discipline is a challenging thing to consider in our cultural environment. But, if the real difference between HR and other functions is rooted in this difference, we’d better figure out how to have the straight talk. It’s impossible to deliver really useful products and services without an unbiased vew of your customer.

Take a look at the HRxAnalysts‘ website. We are going to be deeply investigating the real character of the HR Profession. Our work suggests that things are way different than conventional wisdom suggests.

 
  • Dude, no. I don’t know if you have the gender politics/descriptions quite right.

    “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.

    The essence of HR might be its ability to make clear judgments about really intangible things like personality, potential and match-making. These are stereotypical female things.”

    I think that might be *your* experience with HR, but having worked in the field as a corporate hr professional and leader, that’s not really quite right. 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 it manufacturing, 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.

    I think it’s totally accurate to say that HR is female and so it tends to be underpaid, undervalued, and mocked quite easily. That much is true. But the rest of the assessment of HR? Well, it’s just speculation informed by our own experiences (or lack thereof) with HR professionals.

  • I agree with Laurie. My own experience as a 20+ year HR professional and consultant has been that we flex our styles to match a male-dominated executive suite. We do manager’s jobs for them. We get stuck doing everything that none of the other male executives want to do.

    I don’t think we’re more “nurturing”, we just happen to be smart enough to realize that developing your current employees is more effective than continuously training new hires. That’s less to do with being female, than with being good at what we do.

    Maybe our profession is female-dominated because we have the innate ability to put up with more crap than our male counterparts?

  • I love it.

    All I can say with real certainty is that HR is predominantly female, including the executives; that HR has an observable distaste for team sports and would rather take a walk and read a good book; and, that the various lifestyle, recreation and political choices indicate a function dominated by people who are concerned with the rights of individuals.

    My question for Laurie and Pamela is something like, “How would you generalize the culture of HR?” My bet is that “macho” isn’t how the rest of the organization would describe most HR operations. I suppose I could be wrong.

    I end up with adjectives like modest, mature, conservative. The data says ‘quick to act’ (as opposed to ‘thinking about things for a long time’).

    When I read Pamela’s descriptions, I hear accommodating, care-taking and long term in focus. Laurie’s views are interesting as well. I know that the parts of HR that were concerned with unionization had a tougher edge.

    But, the development function – the care and growth of humans as real assets – is neither an accident nor a stray function shed by lazy managers. The model of HR (Personnel) owning development is a time honored part of military and large industrial organizations.

    HR varies in its design and implementation based on industry, region and size.

    I agree that it’s a leap to say that just because 67% of the HR workforce is female that HR is inherently female. But, you certainly wouldn’t suggest that those numbers are indicative of a male culture, would you? Really?

    My sense is that HR and the vendors who serve them are befuddled by the enormous dysfunction in their relationships. My take remains that this is because the vendor community does not see HR very clearly; that mental maps of the world that work elsewhere don’t work here.

  • Kimberly Roden

    Add me to the list of thoughts that Laurie and Pamela shared… ditto what they said plus…

    I do not view the HR as one that’s nurturing. I’m not nor do I have tissues in my office. I show empathetic (which I believe everyone should be regardless of one’s role) but not compassion. It’s about business and when we work with employees, we do right by them but also what is best for the business.

    I believe that employees need to be accountable for their own careers with corporations having the ability to provide tools only when the employees take the initiative. There are plenty of “hospice” employees who are all too happy to show up, do mediocre work and collecting a paycheck. Is that what’s best for business? Maybe…maybe not.

    Most managers are terrible and management training is worthless. Coaching managers about building relationships can be helpful but at the end of the day, the manager needs to “get it” and also practice being a manager and maybe eventually grow into a leader. Problem is there is a lot of “battlefield promotion” due to basic workload volume and things get to where (to Pamela’s point) HR is cleaning up messes.

    Oh and I was the pitcher on my company’s softball team.

  • Kimberly Roden

    P.S. Sorry for the typos in my comment. Not good.

  • Heather Bussing

    What’s wrong with nurturing? Managers who care, listen, guide and teach can be extremely effective. I’ve worked with both male and female managers I would consider to be nurturing and supportive. This does not preclude being excellent business decision makers and intelligent, strong, assertive leaders.

    My experience is that women manage differently than men. I don’t think that gender is the only important factor though. Personality and style differences transcend gender. A man can be a bitch and a woman can have a really big penis. Both genders can be complete idiots.

    Saying that HR is female is not a criticism or inference that HR is inferior to something male. It is a fact– or at least a 67% fact. The role of women as professionals and leaders is still evolving. We are past the era where we had to look and act like men in skirts. We are over the sexual harassment era where men were terrified to talk to us. We still have to work harder both at the office and at home for less money. But the CEO has stopped calling us kiddo or darlin’ and often needs our insight and advice.

    We wield a tremendous amount of influence and power. It may almost be safe to be ourselves.

  • If I’m correct, John is saying HR is female by what the data suggests (i.e. 67% occupying Executive Seats). The data doesn’t lie if the sample size is large enough. If I told all of you some of the things an Economics Professor of mine (from Iran, I might add) said about certain demographic groups because of “what the data suggests”, you’d be floored. In fact, I’m still surprised he’s still teaching … but then again, he was actually looking at the data, not making personal statements. (I still wouldn’t have said the things he did in class, but he was making a point.)

    I will say that I’m more blown away by the statement, “HR has an observable distaste for team sports” … That’s truly disturbing. Organizations don’t function well without high-performing teams … and it’s the overall network that delivers on our value proposition, not just individuals. I’d love for John to dive into this further – I think this is the key insight that needs to be deeply explored by Vendors if it is, in fact, 100% accurate. Would this change the very type of HR Applications that are being developed? For example, most Performance Review Apps are individual-centric (node-driven), which is clearly ineffective and short-sighted.

  • If I’m correct, John is saying HR is female by what the data suggests (i.e. 67% occupying Executive Seats). The data doesn’t lie if the sample size is large enough. If I told all of you some of the things an Economics Professor of mine (from Iran, I might add) said about certain demographic groups because of “what the data suggests”, you’d be floored. In fact, I’m still surprised he’s still teaching … but then again, he was actually looking at the data, not making personal statements. (I still wouldn’t have said the things he did in class, but he was making a point.)

    I will say that I’m more blown away by the statement, “HR has an observable distaste for team sports” … That’s truly disturbing. Organizations don’t function well without high-performing teams … and it’s the overall network that delivers on our value proposition, not just individuals. I’d love for John to dive into this further – I think this is the key insight that needs to be deeply explored by Vendors if it is, in fact, 100% accurate. Would this change the very type of HR Applications that are being developed? For example, most Performance Review Apps are individual-centric (node-driven), which is clearly ineffective and short-sighted.

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  • This really is fascinating, John. And seems pretty accurate to me. I’m interested, though, that you seem to be saying that the 67% gender imbalance appears to go all the way to the top. Just by observing the business world that doesn’t ring true to me. I’d love to know how many CHROs of the Fortune 500 are female…I’ll bet it’s more like less than 15%…

  • Susan Strayer

    I’ve worked in HR for 15 years. Every HR team (from start-up to F500) I’ve been on or consulted to has been primarily female. Not all female but primarily. I agree — the roots may seem macho-based, but what were the earliest HR roles? Welfare secretaries. HR, as it was born, was designed to take care of people, of workers. That’s why development sits there–you take care, then you grow.

    As a function it hasn’t always done that. And as an HR leader I have to balance the seemingly qualitative taking care with the quant of running a business. So it’s not about whether the people are nurturing, it’s about the fundamental core of the job, gender be damned.

    I once had to be the 2nd person in a room to lay off someone (at a previous job many years ago) and joined my male colleague and HR Director. The process is textbook, legally speaking, and the reasons are business based. But when the person started having a heart attack while we were delivering the news, both my male HR Director and I went into caretaker mode. We were both nurturing (gender aside) because we both had and wanted to be.

    Sure this is an extreme example, but any HR person that doesn’t profess to have genuine care for the people they support, shouldn’t be in HR. Like doctors, we have to be all business and use our brains and facts to make decisions. But many of the decisions we make have implications to a human being. So like a doctor, we have to keep the best interests of the person and the business in mind.

    All of that said, I think many of the comments miss John’s point in all of this. This is about marketing. It’s a statement on know your audience. If I’m selling to HR, I might want to balance my business message with what’s best for the business and the worker. The intersection of the two is the message all CHRO’s I’ve worked with and consulted to like hearing best. Leaning on the nurturing piece can be a good thing. If you come in and try to sell to me and only talk about money, I’m not listening.

  • Kimberly Roden

    Quick comment on the caretaker mode. I’ve administered CPR twice at work but I have also used my CPR on the side of the highway in a bad car wreck. That’s part of doing the right thing as a human vs HR.

    Great point on marketing and influencing to HR and how to send the message though. I will say that the extreme examples, like you mentioned, can change one’s perception on the role and business. To share another extreme example, I was in a termination meeting (gross theft via fraudulent expense reports) and did feel this employee was having his “come to Jesus talk” when he felt that his Glock would change the direction of the meeting. Do you think the manager or myself cared much about the business then?

    My “care” for employees goes only as far as they’re willing to be accountable for. I’m not their mother and they are responsible for their careers — the good and the bad. I am a partner to my CEO and am happy to coach managers so they can work better with employees but at the end of the day, all employees need to have the interests of the business in mind without HR having to reinforce it to the ees.

  • Anonymous

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  • Nurturing — a word you wouldn’t hear applied to any other function in Corporate America and likely the dividing line that runs through the middle of the HR profession. Is our fundamental purpose in HR to take care of the employees in our organization? Or, is our fundamental purpose to ensure that the organization achieves its business goals? You may see gray — I see black and white.

    “Taking care of” or “nurturing” suggests an employee-first view of the world. It represents a kind, understanding, soft and generous approach to managing human resources. It’s a shoulder to cry on and a willing ear to listen to a concern. In other words, it’s the most infantilizing approach we can take to running a business.

    Maybe this is just the testosterone talking but success in business is defined by making tough, timely choices that ensure the business achieves its goals. That approach is frequently not kind, understanding, soft or generous. It understands the valuable role that employees serve in the production of results, but it does not hold the employee as something separate from the business. Decisions are made in the best interests of the business — business-first, not employee-first.

    I don’t want to load too much blame onto one word but “nurturing” may be the largest factor in HR’s perception as being not squarely focused on the business. In 20 years of corporate and consulting work, I’ve never met a successful HR leader (male or female) who would be described as nurturing. Many are pleasant, funny, brilliant, kind, driven and scores of other positive adjectives, but not nurturing. More importantly, I’ve never met a CEO who felt that their business would be more successful “if only HR was more nurturing.”

    I certainly believe the study’s finding that HR is predominantly female and that this gives the profession some unique advantages. However, the sooner we stop nurturing people and start managing the business, the faster we’ll close the perception gap about HR’s value.

  • JP Winker

    Great observation – but attributing the gap between vendors and HR to gender seems to miss the mark. Working both sides of the fence for a number of years, my greatest concern for the HR buyer has been the lack of business acumen, and accountability from their executive team. This applies to HR professionals of either gender. A bulletproof business case for a product or service designed by God himself stands as much chance in the HR market as a crappy product that has the virtue of following the herd.

  • bmoriahs

    What does empathy without compassion look like?

  • Kimberly Roden

    Empathy and compassion do not go hand in hand. Empathy is having the ability to understand what another is going through. In the workplace, compassion is very appropriate at times when one might be experiencing a difficult life event in their personal world — whether it’s sickness, death, etc.

    However, when we’re talking about addressing workplace issues regarding employee relations, manager coaching or even employee complaints, compassion is not the best route to take as it will “feed” drama and emotion into a situation that must be handled pragmatically.

  • Rayanne

    I’d have to disagree with most of your respondents.

    HR doesn’t “run” the business. Nor is it intended to. It supports the business and provides functions that lead to better business practices, whether that is development, training, department matching that includes Strength Finders and Myers Briggs, hiring, implementing and then deciphering performance reviews, retention efforts, defining or discovering company culture, the fun police, and career motivation that includes payroll and benefits. Unsexy? Maybe. Necessary? Yup.

    In my own past, when HR has tried to maintain a more prominent seat the operations table, business has suffered because of the touchy-feely-fear of repercussions approach for which HR is so well known. Should women be allowed to hold a gun in war or in serve and protect mode? Will that “nurturing” side take over and risk the lives of those who need protection or back-up because “mommy” can’t pull the trigger?

    HR brings the box you have to pack when the pink slip arrives. HR is the first department reduced or last department expanded. HR is usually thankless and often irritating.

    If statistics prove the argument. If trusted analysts say it is so, what do you do with the results? the responses? the truth? The elephant in the room doesn’t stand to pee but she will gladly cry about it?

    The argument shouldn’t be about men vs. women. Facts are facts. I think we need to learn how to use the facts to do our jobs better, to sell the right way, to foster better relationships, to understand what engagement really means. If this changes what you have always thought or have always done, is that good or bad? Bad, if what you have always thought or done is the best and your company has found the ultimate success and you have no competitors and everyone loves your business model, price point and product/service. Good, if you are still looking for the “better way,” or if your company needs to harvest more revenue, or better understand the market to which you sell or if you just want to be the best. And don’t we all? Isn’t that the quest of any vendor? To dominate the space and be “the” go-to-source for that which you provide?

    I guess arguing with facts isn’t in my nature. The dinosaurs did exist. Fun or not, jumping out of an airplane is risky. The sun still rises. More women work in HR than men.

    I plan on USING the facts to make my decisions, to alter or cement my approach and live happily ever after. And in the end, that is my business.

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  • Anonymous

    I think one of the problems with having this discussion is there a difference between sex and gender identity. Are there more women than men in HR? Yes. But what does this mean? Does this make HR “female”, and if so, what the heck does that mean, particularly these days? What does the DATA say about what this means, and is it related to this statistic? I doubt we have anything that speaks directly to that point.

    As these comments have illustrated, we each see the profession through our own lens of experience–it’s almost impossible not to. Some individuals in HR are “nurturing” (which we as a group are having a hard time defining), some are not. Some are hard-nosed numbers people, some are not.

    This has as much to do with HR’s identity as a profession as it does with this particular demographic fact. We could just as easy have these conversations:

    – what does it mean that HR is “white”?
    – What does it mean that HR is middle-aged?

    While a discussion based on these questions might be rigorous and thought-provoking, it moves us away from thinking about the point others have made and that is more fundamental: how is HR perceived and what impact does this have?

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  • Ian Gee

    Hi I have just posted a blog about the voice of HR being femaie and a friend of mine sent me a link to your post. Very interesting. I will post a link to this page on the blog. Have a look and do join in the conversation.

    http://theillusionofwork.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/hr-voice-of-a-woman/

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  • JC

    Bravo! My hat is off to you sir. Well said.

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