Human Resources Industry – Where are the Men?

Written by
Nancy Jones

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With more focus on the importance of diversity and inclusion, does HR have a gender diversity problem?

When considering the need for gender diversity, we usually think about professions where males dominate, but in HR over 73% of managers are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Diversity issues work both ways and having a profession that is so heavily dominated by one gender is not necessarily a positive or progressive thing.

How Did it Happen? In the 1960s and 70s unions were still quite strong, manufacturing was the mainstay and HR was largely male-dominated. HR was organized into two segments – Personnel and Labor Relations. Personnel was administratively focused primarily on paperwork and Labor Relations was the area of significant impact to the business through contract & union negotiations/relations. As unions and manufacturing jobs began to decrease, and male labor relations leaders began to retire, the personnel administrators, who were typically women, began to take on increasing responsibility. Thus began the era of female dominance in the profession. At that time personnel was still essentially considered “women’s work” and men were typically uninterested in work that was not as highly skilled or valued (or as highly paid). HR was known as a female-dominated field, which made women more likely and men less likely to pursue an HR career. Additionally, skills/expertise/training were not seen as priorities for an HR role. The responsibilities fell to secretaries and assistants who were typically lower-paid, female-dominated positions.

Fast forward to 2023 and the HR function has significantly evolved due to changing business needs. There has been a societal and philosophical shift to identifying, prioritizing, and addressing business needs that includes recognizing the importance of the “people” components. Businesses, regardless of industry, now better understand the criticality of incorporating the “people elements” into business planning. The profession has become part  of a critical contributor to the success of a business and no longer simply a necessary back-office function. Correctly or not, in general, women are reputed to demonstrate more advanced empathetic, listening, and interpersonal skills, all of which are vital to resolving organizational disputes, managing employees, and negotiating business contracts. This female-dominated field found its seat at the table and opened the profession to focus on attracting, retaining, developing and motivating employees as well as employee relations, legal compliance, compensation and benefit expertise/data analysis and critical business decision-making skills. As a result, HR is now evolving into a more data-driven and technology-focused field with a focus on the practical factors of human behavior and motivation that contribute to business productivity and growth. Instead of solely handling employee relations, HR professionals are expected to understand and apply HR metrics, employment law, compensation and benefits strategies, planning, and project management skills to help a company’s bottom line and drive workforce development. These skills and expertise are much more valued and valuable than ever before.

Now and Into the Future? Given the history, do we really need to worry that this profession has continued to develop as predominantly female? Possibly not. Maybe lack of HR gender diversity is not necessarily a problem. Maybe business needs to remain as inclusive as possible to get the best ideas and the right mix of characteristics regardless of gender. Maybe diversity of gender is less important than diversity of thought. Either way, the demographic trend now is encouraging. The numbers reflect an increasing number of men entering the profession due to the evolving nature of the profession itself. Time will continue to tell this story.