Why HR does not do more for gender balance

Women control the talent pipeline – why HR does not do more for gender balance is complex

The business case for diversity and gender balance is incontrovertible. Yet success in processing women through the talent pipeline to senior positions continues to be elusive. The numbers are dismal with organic change for gender balance with a recent forecast from the World Economic Forum to take another 200+  years.   But as the talent pipeline is managed for the most part by HR, a pink function, dominated the world over by women, the issue has to be examined to establish why HR does not do more for gender balance

It seems truthfully, all a bit odd. And something we need to talk about  – yet almost no one does, from both a female perspective or as HR.

The numbers

In Europe as well as the U.S., HR is dominated by women. Across the pond 70% of the function is female.  In the UK the story is the same. At entry-level 86% of post holders are women, although this percentage drops to 42.5% at director level.  In the U.S. women occupy two-thirds of the HR executive positions.  One commentator likened an HR conference in Las Vegas to a Barry Manilow concert, so heavily populated was it by older ladies.

These women, in theory, should be ideally placed to oversee the changes necessary to strengthen gender balance initiatives. But it’s not happening. Why is that? I don’t think that HR as a function is against gender balance. Or the individual women themselves.  I think it’s more systemic. We have created a pink skill silo based on gender stereotyping.

The talent pipeline

HR oversees the talent pipeline. Most companies need to review the business  processes used to identify, attract, retain and develop female talent. This involves turning tried and tested benchmarks on their heads, as many are no longer always fit for purpose. Chronological, continuous and linear  employment is difficult for many women to achieve, and they are judged harshly when they don’t. Presence based cultures, exacerbate that situation, to keep  women out of the corporate sandbox. All of this is before the deep-seated unconscious bias impacting identification, in recruitment and promotion of talent kicks in. These processes for the most part are managed by women.

Read: How to attract talented women to your organisation

So what’s going wrong?

#Pink skill silos

Research, just published from JUMP and Axiom Consulting, assesses how committed men really are to the gender balance initiative. Their hard data confirms what we know intuitively to be the case. They are not really! No surprise there. They also suggest that the most effective (acceptable?) Diversity Directors are white males. Yet unless they are completely trained in unconscious bias, they inadvertently perpetuate male coded messages and stereotypical responses, reflecting male dominated corporate culture. They use military and sporting metaphors. Their vocabulary is peppered with references to ninjas, winners, Black Belts, hail Mary passes (had to Google that one) pitches, heroes and leaders. They are lean and agile, not slim and flexible.  They risk perpetuating a culture where competitiveness and assertiveness are rewarded, and to quote President Obama “except if you are a woman” and men are also pigeon holed.

Read:  7 ways to hire more women.

Much of the diversity philosophy is based on women bringing a specific set of supposedly missing skills to the board table, those so-called pink skills. In academic speak this is called “vertical gender segreation.” The mantra is  “women are good at this, so those skills need to be represented.” Or perhaps more accurately, this is where we will let them in.

Long term, gender balanced organisations require skill balance, not skill segregation by gender.

One  mid-level female H.R manager commented: “HR has always been associated with the softer side of business, dealing with the “personnel” issues that line managers wanted to duck out of. Over the years it has morphed into a soft skill and compliance function, attracting women. Strategy is decided at C- level and only then if the CHRO has strong business acumen and the ear  and confidence of the CEO.  Of course HR women know where the pay gaps are in their companies. They know who the bullies are. They are aware that things need changing, but they lack the visibility, leadership skills, clout and budgets to do anything much about it. They are coaches, L & D or C & B specialists, with no strategic business training.” 

Lack of business competencies

Fast Company, trying to understand why HR is an unpopular function says: “… most HR organizations have ghettoized themselves literally to the brink of obsolescence.”   This stereotyping of skills is extended as the women in the function are siloed into what Naomi Bloom, speaker, award-winning author and a key contributor to HRTechWorld  calls the “pink collared ghetto.”  This  goes a long way to explaining why HR doesn’t do more for gender balance. Too great an emphasis is placed on so-called female soft skills, being brought to the table by women alone.  There is a lack of what has been traditionally considered to be “male” skills. In HR this key skill is strategic business drive. There is no reason why these skills cannot be provided by women.

A VP of HR (male) said:

“The talent management business processes, managed by women hired for their soft skills, remain largely static. They lack the clout strong enough to dent male coded corporate cultures.”

In an interview with Talent Lab, Naomi believes that it’s a lack of these business skills that relegates HR to a support function with no teeth.

CFOs have really blossomed, so why has HR not? I think it’s because CFOs ask the big business questions.

Myths debunked: male and female brains

HR does not do more for gender balance

It has always been assumed that soft skills is the domain of women because of brain functionality.  But very recent research in late 2015 from the Chicago Medical School and the of University of Tel Aviv is starting to over turn the idea that there is a significant difference in male and female brains. The reason that women exhibit greater soft skills is almost certainly because this is what we have been trained, raised and expected to exhibit.  We experience gender blow back when we act out of stereotype. This will have significant impact on the structure of diversity initiatives, which in many cases can be trapped by stereotyped thinking.

Read: How soft skills can be learned

Both men and women need to exhibit the whole range of skills.  The Fawcett Society suggested that gender  expectations are now  more fluid. Men and women can exhibit qualities and behaviours traditionally associated with both sexes. There is no longer an expectation that behaviour will only be binary.

Skill balance

For HR to be more effective, Naomi continues, they don’t need more soft skills.

In the past, it was enough to just know HR. But, what is expected now is that you are a business person first that happens to have an expertise in HR. The take-away has to be: If you don’t know technology – you’re toast. If you’re not actively disrupting – you will be the one disrupted. If you’re not at the centre of decision-making – decisions will be made without you.

So HR could do more for gender balance, but perhaps only when both men and women are no longer characterised by stereotyped skill segregation. These expectations funnel women into “pink skill silos”  where male and female skills and careers, are differentiated and channelled separately. Ironically, gender balance,  is one of the most strategic campaigns  to involve HR.  But could it be the function is not qualified to deal with it?  HR for example  is not a target function for MBA graduates. Lynda Gratton, Professor  of Management Practise at the London Business School supports the view that the skills required for HR to be effective  “… should be some combination of hard and soft .”

In a strange way what we are doing with gender balance initiatives currently, is inadvertently perpetuating the very stereotyping we want to avoid. As future generations are raised differently, that should  eventually change. All women HR professionals would do well to watch Kristen Pressner’s TedX talk “Are you biased? I am.”

How deep do our own gender biases go? Gender bias is gender neutral and HR is not miraculously exempt. Perhaps then we will start to get some answers  as to why HR does not do more for gender balance

What do you think?

If your company wants gender balanced short lists and to strengthen your female talent pipeline – contact 3Plus  

Updated on April 13th 2018 from the original post in 2016 


3Plus, Career, Culture, Gender Balance
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Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.


  • Dorothy,

    This is an excellent article and I have been waiting for a seasoned practitioner to have the courage to tackle this issue. All your points are valid and will require many in the HR function to do some soul searching about their added value or lack there of in their organizations. This is a very sensitive subject that I would like to see organizations like SHRM take it on more seriously because these tired practices, which the HR function has perpetuated to its own detriment, has kept organizations stagnant and kept the gender pay equity gap a ridiculous conversation that we are still having in 2016.

    Most HR leaders, generally women, have been so happy to have a seat at the table that they have used it to do very little other than to keep themselves quietly in the corner and gainfully employed.

    Over the years, as a consultant to many HR organizations, I have seen a change of the guards in HR organizations where they are bringing in more strategists and business-savvy consultants armed with their data & analytics tools to completely transform this function. You add in the smarter talent management systems and HR will look very different 5 years from now. It will go through the same process that Finance and most recently IT functions have gone through to become smarter organizations and many will just have to go!

    The HR leaders who are courageous and willing to make their organizations both smarter and more proactive are the ones who will win the talent war for their companies. The other ones will help their companies fade away by losing the “talent” war and top notch women will either flock to their competitors or will become entrepreneurs. Frankly, it is a very exciting time for HR. As a function, it has tremendous potential to take companies and the world to the next level however that will only happen with leaders who have a greater vision and are less myopic in their views of talent, potential and like you said these gender balance initiatives that are going nowhere.

  • Milka – thanks for your comment. I see you posted it on 24th June when I was having an existential crisis caused by the Brexit vote – many apologies for the delay. I agree with everything you have noted.I am preparing another post on unconsicous bias within HR which is also a contributory factor to the stagnation. The attitude is we have a D & I policy – we can’t possibly be biased. I hope the changes you anticipate come to fruition. Currently we are just filling up those pink skill silos the concept which is endorsed by many Inclusion initiatives. We need to break away from those.



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