HR an occupational gender trap for women

by Jun 5, 2018

But for how long?

HR has been both a blessing and an occupational gender trap for women but could that dominance change?

One of the biggest causes of gender imbalance is occupational segregation by gender. Despite widespread changes to our education systems, and women making up 60% of graduates in many developed economies, some sectors remain resolutely segregated and dominated by one gender. One major area of occupational segregation is HR. At one time the function was a gateway to a business career for many women but that success is not without downsides.

Over the years, the HR function has been significantly feminised, something I first wrote about in 2011.  So it seems now is a good time to revisit the idea. but 2017, reported that 86% of HR generalists were women. In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 72% of HR managers were women.

The typical profile of an HR Manager in the US has been characterised as “a 47-year-old white woman” by John Sumser, a principal analyst for the blog HRExaminer. A participant at HRTech (now #UNLEASH) last year described an HR conference in the US as having the same audience as a Barry Manilow concert. This imbalance, however, is showing signs of reducing. Recent trends seem to suggest that men are increasing their representation within the function. The number of women reached a peak of  79.3% in 2007. Since then there has been a slight decline, with men making up a higher percentage in recent years.

What is also interesting is despite the high concentration of women at low and mid-levels, the percentage drops to 42.5% at director level in the UK. In the US the overall percentages are pretty much the same, with women occupying two-thirds of the HR executive positions.

occupational gender trap

Reasons why HR is an occupational gender trap

There are a number of complex and over lapping reasons for the reverse gender imbalance in HR.

# Gender coded skills

A potential reason is rooted in stereotyped expectations around gender roles. Sumser and other commentators buy into the notion of gender coded skills. Women are said to be more nurturing with stronger people skills, and therefore more suitable for HR roles. Some believe that this is a genetic ability rather than a nurtured capability. Culturally women are expected to exhibit softer skills, while men are expected to be more rational and decisive. The criteria for evaluation is such that even when women are decisive they are not taken seriously, or get caught up in that old double bind as being too “aggressive”. Women are perceived to have higher levels of emotional intelligence. They are believed to exhibit more advanced empathetic and interpersonal skills, which are valuable in handling sensitive workplace situations and managing challenges with employees.

As economies shifted from production to knowledge based economies, core elements of the function also changed. My early role was Industrial Relations based, but since then core content of the function has morphed from a more adversarial and negotiation role. Competencies are more centred on leadership development, coaching, wellness and competence building.

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#Female branded

Like the other pink skill silos, once the function becomes “female friendly” and a safe place for women to use their acquired or developed soft skills, the numbers continue to grow. Professions such as PR, events, marketing, law and accounting all have high levels of women at entry-level. But they all see significant fall off further up the hierarchy. CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) issued a report “Beyond the Glass Ceiling.” Here they suggest female members of their organisations are 6 times less likely to become CFO or Finance Director than their male counterparts. In HR the number of senior women is much higher at 42% of CHRO.

# Gateway to business

I started my own career in HR, in the heavily unionised steel industry where more often than not I was the only female in any meeting. Men formally objected not just to me being there, but any woman  at all. At one time, the HR function certainly provided a great gateway for entry-level women to embark upon a corporate career compared to other functions, such as production or sales.

HR is marketed as a female friendly function in university careers’ centres, which appeals to women who tend to favour softer academic subjects. Women are forming their career choices long before they have entered the workplace.

# Helps corporate numbers

Companies with masculine dominated cultures (most perhaps?) can successfully recruit women into the HR function without disturbing the masculine order. HR is perceived as “soft”, while sales and production are “hard”. This way stereotyping is continued and gender roles are confirmed. It seems that tough decisions or actions performed by an HR woman will not be perceived as tough and decisive as if they were performed by a man.

# No barriers to entry for men

Additionally, there are few if any barriers preventing men from finding HR jobs. There are no restrictions in terms of qualifications that make it more difficult for a male to perform the functions of an HR professional. Male candidates are treated the same – it’s just they are not attracted to the function perhaps because they are also impacted by HR being seen as a “pink function.”

# Gender Pay Gap

Women dominate the function, but they are still paid less than their male counter parts.  In the US, male HR managers take home 23% more than their female colleagues. In 2016, female HR managers earned an average median weekly salary of $1,283, which was nearly $500 less than the $1,737 average for male managers. Over the course of an entire year, this creates a gender pay gap of $25,000.

Matt Buckland recently carried out some research in the recruitment and hiring manager sector. He identified a higher number of men (53.%) to  women (47%). His findings illustrated the following gender pay gap:

“The average in-house recruiter in this survey has approximately 6 years of experience and is paid £53,236 per annum if they are a woman and £57,538 per annum if they are a man. 

Of the highest earning respondents, the highest paid man earns £180,000 per annum and the highest paid woman £125,000 per annum.

For the lowest earning respondents, the lowest paid man earns £21,000 per annum and the lowest paid woman £24,000.”

#Lack of teeth

The 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. Just as there is no reason why men should lack people skills.

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. HR 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. Women HR Managers are coaches, L & D or C & B specialists, with no strategic business training.” 

Reported from #UNLEASH  in Las Vegas, Janine Truitt, CIO of Talent Think Innovations, quotes Professor Gary Hamel of the London Business School:

HR is the fastest growing function of the organization but has the least buy-in and respect within the organization. We need to ask ourselves why we struggle to self-actualize when this premise is true.

Lack of business skills

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 Bloom, speaker, award-winning author and a key contributor to #UNLEASH elaborates on the problems of what she calls  “pink collared ghetto.” She believes that it’s a lack of these key business skills that relegates HR to a support function with no teeth.

Employees associate HR with compliance and rule adherence which has made it and unwelcome in certain areas. Fast Company, trying to understand why HR is an unpopular function says: “… most HR organizations have ghettoized themselves literally to the brink of obsolescence.”  Naomi comments on the difference between CFOs and CHROs.

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

Change on the horizon

One of the biggest changes to HR is the increase in technology. Many of the functions will become simplified and digital platforms will be used increasingly in many areas. This includes performance reviews, compensation and benefits, recruitment assessment and hiring, as well as onboarding and training and development. The use of Blockchain and HR analytics will also require different skills. The 2018 Future of Work Report from HROS highlighted that People Analytics has jumped from 7th place to 3rd in terms of trends impacting HR over the next 3 years.

The reliance on soft skills typically associated with women, which is behind the occupational gender trap, will need to be replaced or at best augmented. Without those new skills women run the risk of being pushed out of a function which they have dominated for the last three decades.

There aren’t enough women at senior levels to act as female role models. Contact 3Plus NOW for more information about our Mentoring Programmes.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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