HR Part of the Gender-Gap Problem?

New research suggests the female-dominant HR profession takes a hit when it promotes diversity within organizations. But If HR doesn't advocate for greater diversity, how likely is it more women will be able to move into leadership roles?

By Susan R. Meisinger

I began my career after Title VII was passed, which made it illegal to discriminate in employment based on sex. As a result, I spent the early part of my career believing that the law would take care of the problem, and I -- and others like me -- wouldn't have to experience sex discrimination. I believed that with the law and a little time, things would certainly change. As a lawyer, I knew that litigation, and the threat of litigation, is a powerful behavior-modification tool.

As years passed, I grew wiser. I grew to understand that an employee's relationship with an employer is nuanced and sometimes complicated. Compensation decisions can be impacted by lots of factors other than gender -- experience, geography, education and training, and the economy in general. Career progression can be impacted in the same way. If the economy tanks and your employer struggles, opportunities for promotion are likely to disappear, regardless of your gender.

With time I also grew to appreciate the reality that laws alone won't eliminate discrimination. While we can debate the size of the gap in pay between men and women, there's no debate about the fact that a gap remains. And while women have had employment opportunities that were denied to them in the past, progress has often been slow, particularly at the most senior levels of corporations.

Consider Catalyst's report that just four percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women and only 19 percent of those companies' board members are women.

The meager representation isn't because of a lack of turnover at the top. Last month Strategy&, the consulting division of PwC, issued a report on research that examined the leadership of the 2,500 largest global companies. It found that, among the 359 permanent or interim CEOs named in 2015, only 10 were female. That's worldwide. And only one of the 87 new CEOs named to lead the largest public companies in the United States or Canada was a woman. One.

You'd think that, after more than 50 years of Title VII (and lots of state and local laws) the gap wouldn't be so great. After all, the HR profession has had a powerful tool at its disposal for decades -- the threat of potential litigation -- to help eliminate discrimination and remove barriers. Why hasn't there been more progress?

What if HR is part of the problem? 

Not because the profession ignores disparate treatment when we see it or we ignore disparate impact from corporate policies.

What if HR is part of the problem because the profession has become female-dominated, and HR is largely responsible for promoting diversity within organizations?

A recent Harvard Business Review article titled Women and Minorities Are Penalized for Promoting Diversity by Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman, revealed findings -- similar to other research findings -- that engaging in "diversity-valuing behaviors" didn't make an executive appear more competent to his or her boss. It wasn't a career enhancer.

What they did find was that "women and nonwhite executives who were reported as frequently engaging in diversity valuing behavior were rated much worse by their bosses, in terms of competence and performance ratings, than their female and nonwhite counterparts who did not actively promote balance." 

Similar research conducted  by David R. Hekman of the University of Colorado and Maw Der Foo and Wei Yang of the University of Colorado, Boulder, found that (according to their report):

"Ethnic minority or female leaders who engage in diversity-valuing behavior are penalized with worse performance ratings than their equally diversity-valuing white or male counterparts . . .  . [E]xecutives who are women or ethnic minorities are penalized every day for doing what everyone says they ought to be doing -- helping other members of their groups fulfill their management potential. " 

To reiterate, research suggests it's possible that a large percentage of HR professionals -- those who are female -- could be penalized for encouraging diversity, even though we know that greater diversity has been shown to enhance business outcomes and reduce lawsuits.

When faced with the likelihood of being penalized for advocating greater diversity, would it be unrealistic to wonder if many HR professionals avoided or down-played their advocacy responsibilities? And if HR doesn't advocate for greater diversity in an organization, how likely is it for more women to move into leadership roles?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I do know that they're questions that need to be asked.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


May 9, 2016
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