How did human resources become the most female-dominated department at most companies, and what does that mean for a man working in HR?
Author’s note: This commentary reflects my own opinion and experiences and is neither endorsed, nor sponsored by my current or former employers.
While I do volunteer work in sexual violence advocacy and have been a syndicated blogger for several years, my full-time career is actually as a human resources manager for a big box retailer. Over the years, I’ve experienced human resources in several industries: the United States Marine Corps, a multi-state emergency medical practice, and for Fortune 50 big box retailers.
A human resources career requires a person to continously walk a fine line between employee advocate and corporate stooge. Some days, you have to fully commit to being one or the other, given the situation. On my best days, I get to play a role in promoting someone, putting a person who has been out of work for years back into the workforce, or securing a relief fund grant for an employee who has suffered a tragedy. On my frustrating days, I am in the position of mediating childish disputes between people who should be happy to be employed, rather than intentionally picking fights with each other. On the worst days, I find myself recommending a termination or issuing a career-crippling performance management documentation. Most people who criticize us couldn’t handle the stress or the difficult situations we are expected to resolve on a daily basis. The world I live in is not black and white. It is eight million shades of grey.
I began my HR career in personnel administration for the U.S. Marine Corps. This was a fascinating experience and one that catapulted me out of Central Illinois and into the world. I learned a great deal that prepared me for private industry and several years in an administrative capcity for several national trade organizations headquartered in Washington, D.C. Over the six years I spent on active duty, I had several supervisors both male and female. During that time, I had the pleasure of serving under one of the best female Marine officers and supervisors I’ve ever known, and also for one of the most petty and arrogant female officers I’ve ever known. Both experiences would prove instructive over the course of my career.
After nearly ten years in an administrative capacity, I decided that it was time to return to human resources work. I took a position managing human resources, benefits and out-of-state payroll for a growing, multi-state emergency medical practice. This is where I was privileged to work for one of the best supervisors of my career. She supported my decisions, listened to my ideas, and gave me enough autonomy to actually figure out how to make the confusion of acquisitions and rapid growth more manageable. In addition to the HR roles, I had a sizeable chunk of the operations functions under my purview.
A few companies later and I am now in an HR management capacity for a Fortune 50 retailer. The work is very different from what I encountered during active duty or working with emergency medical personnel. The basics remain the same, even if they look different on the surface.
Over the course of my career, I’ve encountered an interesting mix of supervisors both male and female. My human resources colleagues tend to be female primarily. While there are men working in human resources, we are the exception, not the rule.
For years, men did rule the HR world as most companies could not see a female employee outside of the administrative ranks, food service or cleaning help. As the profession transitioned from “personnel” to “human resources” the gender mix tilted out of balance. I don’t particularly view this imbalance as negative or positive. It simply is the reality. An in depth study by the Office of Personnel Management showed that depending on the specialty, in 1998, women comprised between 71 and 82 percent of human resources managers and generalists. (http://www.opm.gov/studies/Trans1.pdf) While those numbers specifically relate to federal HR ranks, they are comparable to private industry.
As a man working in a field heavily dominated by women, it can be both a challenge and an advantage. I’ve been dismissed or treated as a nuisance as the sole male in a given group by a female supervisor who was quite happy to develop her female subordinates, while doing her best to alienate or ignore me. I’ve also been sought out repeatedly by female peers who want a male perspective on an issue they are struggling with at a given time. One thing I have always felt was respected and valued by most of my female peers.
The reactions from employees outside of HR departments have been the most dramatic. Quite often, they are surprised when the “new HR” is a man or they wonder if I am “from corporate.” I work hard to win the trust and respect of the people who depend on me to assist them with their concerns or interpret policy and ensure it is enforced fairly. My gender is not key to my success in human resources work, but it is obvious to employees that I am different. After over a decade of HR experience, I am still contacted periodically by employees from prior locations and even former employers. Often, they just need a friendly ear to listen to them vent or they want to pick my brain regarding an issue that is bugging them. That is about building trust and confidence – not gender.
Once the employees get comfortable with a man’s presence in a human resources role, he may find himself welcomed and appreciated with his gender no longer a consideration. Men are not naturally better or more talented at such roles, we are just like the women in the profession – individuals. I’ve worked with female colleagues of many personality types: compassionate and empathetic; authoritarian and stern; emotionless and calculated; and various combinations of those personality types. The assumption that women are naturally more compassionate and maternal when in positions of power or authority is quickly dispatched when dealing with an authoritarian type in a human resources role. There are plenty of women who operate under that philosophy while performing their duties. I’ve encountered them in supervisory roles or as peers.
While I am always happy to see other men when I walk into a gathering of HR professionals, I am not naturally compelled to bond with them solely on that basis. My closest professional relationships with HR colleagues have actually been with women. There are simply so many more that it is truly unavoidable if you intend to be effective in your networking and professional development. In my current role, my two closest colleagues are female HR managers. We serve as a sounding board for each other or a sympathetic ear when having a less than spectacular day.
For men considering human resources as a profession, I would advise you to ignore the “women’s work” mindset promoted by some knuckle-dragging troglodytes. Further, the fear that you won’t be taken seriously as a male in this field runs completely counter to my own personal experience. I’m not saying it is a cakewalk and that you won’t encounter sexism and bigotry at the hands of some of your female colleagues or supervisors, but I can say that is not the rule, nor is it openly tolerated by the majority as it is other fields with similar imbalances.
Guys, human resources is a profession like any other. If you work hard and let your presence and work product speak for itself, your status as a gender minority in the overall field can be little more than a novelty to some or a refreshing alternative to others. The haters, and they are there, are not in the majority, nor are they important in the long run. Work hard, do the right thing, and develop alliances with your female colleagues and you can make it happen for yourself in the long run. You have the opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives in ways you can’t even imagine. It is truly humbling to run into a former employee from a prior employer or location and hear that a decision you made or how you did your job made a positive difference for that person.