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HR Leadership Column

Still a Long Way to Go

Optimism about the progress of women in the workplace is tempered by recent studies and real-life events. It seems the challenge for HR leaders remains as daunting now as it ever was.

Monday, March 21, 2011
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This month, International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8. The entire month is Women's History month. While they both have been observed for years, I haven't paid much attention to them. After all, who can keep track of all of the special months and days that have been proclaimed by someone?

This year, however, I noticed because some events reminded me that, while women in the workplace may have "come a long way baby," we still have a long way to go. And the ability to travel much of this distance lies in the hands of the HR profession.

First, a family member called because she was grappling with how and when to tell a company that she was pregnant. She had worked for the company for years, but became a contractor when she moved to another state because of her husband's job.

When she moved, the company didn't want to have remote workers, so it hired her as a contractor. (We'll put to the side the question of whether she was really an employee by another name.)

A year later, the company changed its policy and told her it would hire her back as an employee. She was waiting for the final paperwork when she was asked to help develop the work plan for the coming months. She felt obligated to tell them she'd be off when the baby came, so she did, but she was concerned that it would put her job offer at risk.

Next, I got a call from a family member who had gone into a work area where a male colleague had his computer screen facing the common area. When she entered the area, where two other men were also present, her colleague was sitting at his computer watching pornography.

He didn't bother to close the screen when she entered, and the other men didn't comment. She turned and left and later told the employee's supervisor. But she was concerned she would have to continue working with this colleague, and was anxious to know what she should do.

Then, I read the White House report Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, which concludes that young women in America are more likely than men to have a college degree, but their wages still lag significantly behind those of men with comparable education.

I know the report has problems. Like many such reports, the comparison is based on education, and when more variables such as age and workforce attachment are considered, most research shows the wage gap is closing significantly. But there still remains a gap.

Finally, I saw HREOnline's story on a Catalyst study that found that men with MBAs who are mentored get more promotions and higher pay than women with mentors. The reason: "They hitch their stars to higher-ranked executives."

Years ago, when people would ask me whether I was worried about the HR profession becoming predominately female, I would respond, "No." After all, no one seemed concerned when professions became male dominated.

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Why be concerned about HR being a female-dominated profession beyond the potential for compensation dropping as a result? Luckily, HR is in a position to monitor and control for compensation inequities.

Furthermore, I thought, if women are in positions where they can ensure that employment decisions are made in a nondiscriminatory manner, it could only bode well for all women in the workforce.

This month, I'm reminded that the truth is a little messier. I'm reminded that, while women in the workplace have indeed come a long way, we still face subtle and frustrating barriers to equal opportunity.

I'm reminded that many of the inappropriate behaviors and decisions found in the workplace are just plain hard to eradicate.

And even with so many women in the HR profession having an opportunity to help level the playing field, there is much work to be done. The challenge for the profession remains.

Wondering what happened with my family members? Well, one hasn't heard anything more about being hired back since sharing the news about her pregnancy. Silence. (Don't worry, I've got it.)

And the family member with male colleagues viewing pornography? She just sent me her resume to review.

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.

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