The Gender Ghetto

A survey of HR professionals in Canada resulted in some complex reactions to the lack of men in the profession, and whether steps should be taken to rebalance the gender representation.

This article accompanies The Feminization of HR.

Thursday, March 1, 2012
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In the fall of 2008, the Human Resources Professional Association in Toronto, in conjunction with its partner Canadian HR Reporter, conducted a survey on the gender imbalance in HR.

The latest statistics at the time had suggested that 72 percent of persons employed in HR were women. The accounting profession, which had the reverse gender imbalance, had recently undertaken initiatives to recruit more women into their profession.

One of the ideas explored by the survey was whether there was support for undertaking initiatives to recruit more men into the HR profession. As with many surveys of this kind, we did get some expected answers but we did get some surprises as well.

Members of HRPA and readers of Canadian HR Reporter were invited to respond to a short online survey -- 1,354 HR professionals responded to the survey. Although not a scientific sample, the demographics of the survey respondents suggested that our sample was likely representative of the population of HR professionals in Canada.

Survey respondents had a median of 12 years of experience in HR and worked for organizations with a median of 560 employees.

Although 72 percent of survey respondents were of the opinion it would be a good thing for the HR profession if there was a better balance in gender representation, 50 percent were of the opinion that the high proportion of women in human resources was something the HR profession should be concerned about.

About half (52 percent) said the HR profession should actively recruit more men into the profession, and 46 percent of respondents said professional HR associations should develop and implement specific action plans to redress the gender imbalance in HR.

Not surprisingly, those who saw the gender imbalance in HR as something to be concerned about also tended to be of the opinion that specific actions should be taken to redress the gender imbalance.

Looking to the future, few respondents (2 percent) predicted that balanced gender representation would happen in HR over the next 10 years, but most (61 percent) predicted that progress would be made toward a more balanced representation across genders in HR over that time.

More importantly, the responses to the survey indicated that the real issue here was not the gender imbalance in HR per se or whether attracting more men to the profession would be a good idea or not.

The real issue for many survey respondents was that the proportion of women drops markedly as one moves up the corporate ladder and that there is still an imbalance in favor of men at the most senior levels in our profession.

Although the survey had not been designed to explore this issue; the free-response comments certainly did. Indeed, the free-response comments provided many insightful observations and a nuanced perspective on the gender imbalance in HR.

The respondents also commented on the role that HR has played -- and continues to play -- for women in the corporate environment. Many had a clear sense of ambivalence about this role. They noted how HR had become the main path available to women to attain senior positions in organizations, whereas others were more concerned that HR had become a gender ghetto.

Other respondents were concerned that any attempt to re-balance the gender representation in HR might "backfire" and actually lead to fewer career opportunities for women. Still other respondents noted that both gender imbalances should be addressed -- there should be more men in the more junior HR positions and more women in the more senior positions in HR.

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Many survey respondents also commented on the link between gender balance and pay and recognition.

Interestingly, the causality was seen to go both ways. Some felt that, as more men enter the HR profession, compensation and recognition for HR professionals would increase; others felt that, as compensation and recognition for HR professionals increases, more men would be attracted to the profession.

Many linked gender representation to the fundamental values of the HR profession.

A number of respondents noted that, with a stronger business orientation and more emphasis on quantification, the HR profession was moving away from "female" values and moving towards more "male" values. The HR profession was becoming "harder" and less caring.

Although, some survey respondents noted this shift in values might make the HR profession more attractive to men, many were not convinced that this shift to "male" values was all for the better.

In the end, the picture that emerged of the gender imbalance in HR was shaded and complex. Clearly, the gender imbalance in HR is tied to the core dynamics in our profession.

Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych., CHRP, is vice president of regulatory affairs and registrar at the Human Resources Professionals Association, the largest HR association in Canada. It has more than 19,000 members in 28 chapters and hosts the largest annual HR conference in the country. It also regulates the HR profession and issues the Certified Human Resources Professional designation.

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