John Sumser on HR's Gender Imbalance

This Q & A with John Sumser, principal analyst with Bodega Bay, Calif.-based HRxAnalysts, and writer Julie Cook Ramirez explores female stereotypes and the future of HR.

This article accompanies The Feminization of HR.

Thursday, March 1, 2012
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HRE: The HRxAnalysts finding that HR has become vastly female-dominated doesn't seem to surprise people, but it has been sparking lots of conversations, hasn't it?

SUMSER: I am in my late 50s and I remember when it was a big deal for a married woman to have a credit card of her own. It's not that long ago. It's a generation at most. The extraordinary continued success of women in the workforce has its first beachhead in HR. That's really interesting. I'm less clear that the report found that this is a trend that is continuing, but it's already there -- the majority of the people in HR are women.

It's what often happens in civil-rights movements. The move to integrate the minority into the majority ends up with something that's simultaneously successful and a ghetto. It happens all the time.

The dynamic is that the easiest place to accomplish the solution to the problem becomes the next place where the problem exists. So part of what you see in HR is that it's a staff function and staff functions do not have lots of authority in the organization.

Authority comes in line functions. Line managers get to say, 'Do this, do that.' Staff people get to say, 'We think it would be a good idea if you do this or do that' or 'We recommend that you do this or do that.'

In some ways, the staff function plays to the stereotype of women as less decisive. It's a stereotype and it doesn't mean anything, but it also is not without meaning.

It's very interesting that HR has developed the reputation that it has which is as a conservative function which is not a good place to discover innovation and that it is pre-dominantly female, all of a sudden starts to work against the function.

Part of the next wave of HR transformation is as much an answer to this particular quandary as anything else. The quandary can be easily summed up as: In success are always the seeds of failure.

... The opportunities for women have been the greatest in HR. That's largely responsible for the concentration. It's not that it's some sort of feminine operation. It's that it's where the opportunities were and some people have flooded to the opportunities.

This is tricky stuff to talk about because it's very easy to sound like an idiot when you are trying to dissect stereotypes and apply the results of surveys to stereotypes and make sense out of it from a big picture perspective. ...

HRE: A lot of people are bristling at the fact that this conversation is taking place at all.

SUMSER: ... When there is something that is a taboo and you start to talk about it, people don't want to talk about it and push away, even though that's probably the single best signal that you are on the right track.

Not everybody can tolerate the level of pushback that's been out there, but the pushback is actually really good for the dialogue, for moving the conversation about what HR is, what does HR do, who are the people inside HR. That's really important.

HRE: People claim the upper ranks of HR are still male-dominated, but that doesn't necessarily appear to be the case anymore. In fact, your survey shows that women occupy two-thirds of HR executive seats.

SUMSER: There's some sort of normal human function that wants to hold on to an old view, even if the data tells you it isn't true. Just because you can show somebody that 2 plus 2 equals 4, if they believe in their hearts that it's 3, it's 3.

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The change probably isn't going to come from data, the change is going to come from some personal experience that illuminates the fact that the old way of doing the math isn't working so well.

It's an interesting problem. What's ironic about people in HR not believing the data about people in HR is that HR is the function that is typically charged with implementing change-management programs, which are all about teaching people to believe something other than what they used to believe.

There is some great irony in the notion that you would be talking to people who see the data and you can point the flow of things that you are seeing and they will dismiss it because it doesn't agree with their view.

HRE: Some people say, as HR is becoming more strategic, more men will want to get in the ranks. Is the pendulum swinging back?

SUMSER: There are some more stereotypes and the stereotypes affect how you recruit for people inside of HR. My sense is that it could change in the way you describe, but what's more likely to happen is because the cultural view of what women are and what women stand for and what the potential of a woman is, is in rapid flux, it's moving very fast, it's more likely that stereotype is going to broaden to include hard decision-makers and that you'll see those kinds of people surfacing in HR departments.

... What's really happening in the culture is that women are becoming the majority of the workforce, they are becoming the most educated part of the workforce, and women as a class will be running American industry 15 years from now. That's a really interesting thought.

That means that thinking about HR as an executive training ground is pretty interesting because it's a rich and complex arena that has a lot of problems that don't solve easily, so it's a good place to make operational decisions. It's just missing the authority of line management.


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