Why is the HR Profession Dominated by Women?

You’ve probably heard about or seen it for yourself at some point that women have a significantly higher presence in the human resources department. Some try to explain it as women being more compassionate, responsive to emotions, or necessary empathy that men don’t seem to have. While others say that women choose this line of work since it is stable, secure, and does not involve much physical exertion. We look at the myths and cross-check the facts to find out what exactly makes women good at the job and whether it is a field that men can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t enter?

Women have been characterized as good communicators and are said to show a much higher level of emotional intelligence than their male counterparts. This makes women much more aware of their own feelings as well as those of others, and they relate much better inter-personally than men do. Although such theories have limited evidence, it loosely means, on average, women would be better at handling personal as well as professional conflicts than a man in the same position.

The vital thing to bear in mind is that this tradition is perpetual and historical. Such instances and conditions may exist in some organizational settings but do not paint a clear picture of the current scenario, which is a little more complicated. A man should not be considered for a physically demanding job simply based on gender, nor vice versa (where a woman is favored for her “inherently compassionate” abilities). Empirical data suggests the stereotypes are breaking at an increasing rate as more women are coming out of oppressions faced by past generations, the credit for which goes to all of society.

But Why No Men?

Lower emotional intelligence does not imply that men are unsuitable for HR positions, nor does it mean they are emotionally suppressed. There is a perception of men having low emotional intelligence that enables the stereotype but on the contrary there is no evidence present for such a scenario to exist. Hence, men should not be considered unsuitable for HR positions.

It’s a culture that the corporate industry can’t seem to let go of (and the history of how it happened is quite impressive too, we’ll get to that). Global firms reflect a lower lack of diversity than domestic Indian ones, but that doesn’t mean the companies there are free from this bias. HR leadership roles in Indian companies are largely held by men.

Grant Thornton’s Women in Business Report 2019 recorded human resources far outweighs all other departments for female leadership”. With 43% of female human resources directors, it is the division with the highest number of leadership roles held by women. The report was drawn from the responses of 4,900 interviews and surveys conducted in November and December 2018 with chief executive officers, managing directors, chairs, and other senior-level decision-makers from all industry sectors in mid-market businesses in 35 countries.

Several ongoing studies are trying to uncover evidence of what makes HR a female-dominated sector, but have not been able to provide a reliable conclusion. 

The best way to understand why women tend to stay longer in HR can be summed up in 2 words: stability & realism. A 2016 Egon Zehnder study found that women adjust their goals to what they believe is realistic, and this can be touted as a reduction in ambition. The conclusion was, unsurprisingly, dismissed by YourStory as “rubbish.” Women’s ambitions are high as men, if not higher, but their practical approach to dealing with situations which can, in some cases, significantly hamper one’s career growth.

With additional household responsibilities falling on women, it’s almost instinctive for men and women to slip into their traditional gender roles. YourStory, in an article that explored the problem found, when a woman struggles to balance responsibilities, the instinct of men is to support and protect their partners. They take charge as the primary bread-winner and comfort them if they’d like to take a break, go easy, or explore work-from-home opportunities. The intentions are pure and positive, but they set the couple back a couple of generations. 

The article went on to say, “Often the ‘only choice’ women have as they readjust their life goals and start using a more comprehensive framework (including their role as a parent/primary caregiver) to manage their lives is to slow down. This, unfortunately, might be the beginning of a vicious cycle.”

How to Break the Cycle

As much as it hurts to say, especially as a man who would like to live in a female-driven world, although there is very little the average working woman or man can do to change the current scenario, we can start a conversation and talk about how the problem affects us. Business leaders in positions of influence must also take significant steps; steps to encourage male participation in the HR industry as well as provide opportunities to female workers in all other sectors. Such initiatives will be the driving forces for the next generations.

For instance, the first female Chairman of State Bank of India, Arundhati Bhattacharya, introduced policies regarding employee treatment during maternity, which influenced female participation during and after pregnancy. The Career by Choice program was put in place by the Leena Nair during her time with Unilever India that helped women rejoin the workforce who fell from their career ladders due to some complications or the other. 

The study also drew a report on Indian MNCs, domestic firms, and other privately held companies to compare the number of male HR heads with female HR heads.

These are examples that prove there doesn’t need to be a single point of innovation and no need for enormous efforts to change the current scenario and mindset; neither does it require a position of influence to change the status quo. Instead, a coordinated and diplomatic plan of action from both sides of the argument need to come together and start formulating solutions.

In the bigger picture, the data and insights point that this is not some evil, devious scheme aimed to demean or undermine female participation in the corporate workplace. In fact, as we dig deeper to find out what happens at senior levels, such stereotypical instances are hardly encountered. Because at that level, everyone has gained due respect, and their presence at those levels is due to their expertise and knowledge.

The movements for equality and growth in participation show that none of these stereotypes are actually true. We as a society have evolved to a stage where men and women are equipped to take on equally challenging roles. The myths of HR being an industry dominated by women is nothing more than that, a myth. Nonetheless, here’s the history of how the myth was started to be seen as a legitimate practice in corporate cultures.

The narrative traces its roots back to the 19th century welfare workers. These were members of the workers whose core responsibility was to take care of women and children in the workplace. Since the creation of the role was intended to assist women and children, these roles were mainly taken up by female workers. At the time the female to male ratio in roles that had functions similar to that of the modern day HR was 13:1. An alarmingly high rate, but that was the 19th century and as societies evolved and there was more diversity in participation in all sectors, the figure today stands at roughly 2:1 (The Sterling Choice).

After that, at the end of the Civil Rights Era in the US, people management and HR jobs in mills that were occupied by men were let go. Due to rising inflation, mill owners were not retaining men who were demanding higher pays and turned to the secretaries and assistants of these ex-managers. The women knew the work and were significantly better at handling disputes. The stable pay and job security was lucrative to settled, married women in the 1980s. The trend was later propagated as women being fit for HR because of how “compassionate” they were.