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Traditionally, the world of Human Resources (such a cold expression) nee Personnel (not much better) has been considered womens’ domain. In business we’re either portrayed as policy-driven, process-obsessed middle aged women in a closed office who tell you what you can’t do, or as mothers- supportive and nurturing of those in favour, punitive if you cross the line.
Men who have opted for a career in HR are often overlooked, or are considered somehow beyond it and into the realms of business advisors, coaches and mentors. It’s a shame. There are some brilliant, creative men in HR, such as Doug Shaw, Mervyn Dinnen, Michael Carty, Sukh Pabial and many others I will kick myself for not remembering to recognise as soon as I post this.
HR has undergone a revolution in recent years, with the perception of our profession being blown wide open in favour of remembering what we’re all about: the People.
The new voices in HR are positive, recognising the importance of engaged and collaborative teams, of living by strong values and preferring productive conversations over appraisal meetings. It’s friendlier, and more about practicalities than creating endless documents and memos that are rarely read or understood. Suddenly HR is a career choice for a wide range of people, rather than something many people end up doing by accident.
As both HR practitioner and political activist, I can’t help but note that as HR evolves to be more relevant to business and people (and how this is driven by both genders) we have seen a changing role for women in politics. Currently, more Shadow Cabinet posts are held by women than ever before.
So how about our Cabinet? There’s precious little diversity at all, even before you consider there are half as many women as in the Shadow Cabinet. It’s disappointing when you consider that the Conservative Party saw more of its female candidates elected than ever before in 2010, while Labour has seen its number decline from the 1997 high of 101 female MPs. Of course this reflects changing electoral fortunes, too- but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Meanwhile in business, the statistics around female Managing Directors or CEOs and the number of HR professionals on boards are grim reading, with only two women heading up FTSE 100 companies at time of writing, and a poorer picture still for HR, despite our accepted purpose of establishing connections with people at every level of our organisations.
So what would I do about it? Well, jockeying women into positions to fulfil some sort of target isn’t healthy for anyone, least of all the women involved.
We've recently seen an EU proposal that would see companies compelled to ensure 40% of board members are female. I have mixed feelings on this. While there is certainly a need to see more women on boards, there’s often little to be achieved in crowbarring people in to roles to fulfil an imposed obligation. A board position- like any promotion- should be awarded on the basis of ability, not gender.
There’s a risk of boards becoming bloated, with women promoted into non-executive positions to meet the target and fake a commitment to equality- but with the key decisions retained by the existing (male) board members. So in effect, you have women who look to hold positions of responsibility, but with little say in how things really get done. Trust me when I tell you: that’s frustrating, and you often feel more disrespected than if you’d been left off the list all together.
But if working in a male-dominated world, how does a woman make her abilities known, and gain recognition?
I would suggest that perhaps better talent identification holds the key. Business owners should present challenges that will enable problem solvers of both genders to show their abilities. They should hold conversations about personal goals that count instead of “Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?” Business leaders- and not just HR- must allow employees equal time, opportunity and space to shine in order to learn what their people are really good at. If they do this they can develop them well, foster loyalty and get the most value from them.
It often requires a drastic change in culture, which sadly doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s not an excuse not to start. If you create a space where women and men can flourish, natural abilities will come to the fore and leaders will make themselves known.
So yes, women need to be board members and Ministers, but let’s ensure they are given the opportunities and resources needed to win their place in the same way as their male colleagues. Let’s identify the talent. Let’s prepare them, coach them and position them in such a way that a seat at the table is the natural progression, not something that’s done to tick a box.
In the same way, I don’t fully support the Labour Party’s use of All-Women Shortlists (AWS) when selecting candidates. This Party already has the strongest track record of all Parties in promoting the role of women in politics- but even that could be drastically improved.
There is too high a concentration of women in the UK in minimum wage and often part-time jobs. They often have familial responsibilities or are politically disengaged, but are usually painfully aware of the impact that decisions made in Westminster have on working people. These are the women we should be encouraging into politics, and as yet I see no evidence that AWS has done that.
I don’t advocate dropping AWS all together, but I would venture that it could be improved enormously if the shortlists included employees of ASDA and the cafe at the local garden centre as well as the University educated women in higher-paid jobs. For me, there’s a need for local politicians as well as national ones to connect with community groups, where women’s talents often shine and candidates may be identified.
With turnouts falling and an increasing disillusionment with politics and politicians, there’s a real need for all parties to select candidates that look like the communities they represent- whether that’s working class, black, white, gay, straight, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, women, men, mums and dads- or any combination of the above.
Let’s make “They’re all the same” something we heard in the dark years post-expenses scandal, before we saw sense and made aspiring representatives of the people representative of the people.
So, from this HR practitioner’s perspective (from her desk amongst the people she works with and for) it doesn’t matter if we’re talking politics or HR: it’s about People, fairness and equality of opportunity- for everyone.