50 percent (or arguably more) of HR MBA grads are women. But when it comes to people at the helm of the HR function, the absence of women is conspicuous. This was the premise of a discussion I was having with a friend, which prompted me to dig deeper. Here’s a snapshot of my cursory internet and LinkedIn led research of HR heads of companies in India. I tried to look at HR heads in both MNCs and Indian companies, across sectors, startups, and more established firms. This list is not a comprehensive research but more indicative of a possible trend.
Another question which deserves attention is whether women get appropriate support and encouragement from their partners. When women struggle to balance responsibilities, often the natural, instinctive, response of men is to protect and help their wives, take charge as the primary bread earner, and tell their partners that it is OK to take a break, go slow, or look for work-from-home options. While this is done with genuinely good intentions, it gives women a tempting option (with both men and women comfortably falling back into more traditional gender roles). I think men would play a far more critical role by supporting women in tangible ways in the form of help with childcare, parental care, and household activities, and ensuring that their partners do not have to compromise on their careers in any way. This is probably wishful thinking.Do women become less ambitious with time? Or is there an unconscious bias which creeps in, resulting in fewer women getting HR leadership roles? Are companies not providing the required support and enabling mechanisms to help women transition through years when they need to give time to their families? Or is ensuring women progress to leadership positions not a priority for organisations? Do women find starting their own organisations, where they control their own time, a better alternative? These and many other questions are hard to answer comprehensively. The best answer is possibly a little bit of everything.
Changing face of leadership
While gender roles are slowly evolving, traditional leadership behaviours are very closely entangled with typical masculine traits. Research continues to support claims that because of deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, even if men and women leaders exhibit the same behaviours and accomplishments, their effectiveness may be perceived differently. As per 2016 research from AAUW, “time and time again, female leaders are chided for being too bossy, bitchy, cold, or aggressive: characteristics that are at odds with traditionally “feminine” attributes like compassion, warmth, and submissiveness.” Often women leaders I talk to speak about how they do not want to change their personalities just to fit in. They constantly struggle: if I am aggressive, I am labelled as being overly emotional and asked to keep my emotions in check; if I am quiet and not aggressive, I am told I lack a voice and am not ambitious. This is a real catch-22 situation!
As per a 2016 Egon Zehnder study, women adjust their goals to what they believe is realistic, and this can be touted as reduction in ambition. Rubbish. Often the ‘only choice’ women have as they readjust their life goals and start using a more comprehensive framework (including their role as a parent/primary caregiver) to manage their lives is to slow down. This unfortunately might be the beginning of a vicious cycle. Women take a break, lose their network, miss out on opportunities — you get the drift. Also, this is perhaps not a vicious cycle for each woman ‘individually’, but when you view the situation at an aggregate level the situation is far from rosy.
The need for a virtuous cycle
I believe this situation needs to change and action needs to be taken now. Perhaps senior HR women leaders at the helm of organisations are better positioned to design appropriate programmes and policies required across different career stages (and life stages) for women. It was during Leena Nair’s HR leadership at Unilever India that the innovative Career by Choice programme was put in place. The programme helps women who have fallen off the career ladder to rejoin the workforce. Arundhati Bhattacharya, the first woman to head the State Bank of India in its 208-year history, put in place revolutionary rules on maternity, and she wasn’t even the Chief HR Officer. Employees at SBI today are allowed to take sabbaticals for up to two years — for child care or elder care. Adobe has taken conscious steps to maintain pay parity across genders. Just recently, the Global Head of HR at Adobe, Donna Morris, announced that taking into consideration job and geography, women employees at Adobe earn 99 cents for every dollar earned by male employees in the US. Compare this to data from the US Department of Labor: women earn $0.79 for every $1.00 earned by men, on average across the US. These are only a few examples of how women in leadership roles directly contribute to enabling other women grow in their careers.
Working mothers raise daughters who are more likely to work, further bolstering the virtuous cycle. A 2015 research from HBS points to evidence that women whose mothers worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves, are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility at those jobs, and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full-time. Also, men raised by working mothers are more likely to contribute to household chores and spend more time caring for family members, a necessary and admittedly hard change in otherwise well accepted societal roles and norms.
Clearly there is an opportunity to fulfil a virtuous cycle: more women HR heads (and women leaders in general), better programmes and equal pay for women in HR (and other functions) resulting in future women leaders in HR (and other functions). Men in senior HR leadership roles, who ensure diversity in their teams, invest in understanding women’s career challenges, and drive relevant diversity programmes are definitely needed as well.
Clearly organisations (both men and women leaders) need to take action in the form of a range of measures: correcting for unconscious signalling through lower pay for women compared to men in similar roles, putting in place structured diversity, restart, and primary caregiver programmes, and committing to women’s progress to leadership roles.
But I also want to reach out to my network, especially my women friends and colleagues and ex-colleagues in HR. The rules of the ‘career growth’ game change when you are in the mid-career stage. While in the first five–eight years of your career, your job changes and promotions are primarily impacted by your performance; post the seven–eight year mark, ‘networking’ becomes a key component influencing your future career moves. Whether you like it or not, who you know and who will support your next career move matters. It matters because someone needs to suggest your name for a job at the right time and someone needs to be convinced of your performance to place a bet on you. So get out there, rekindle your network, and talk about your career goals and achievements. Find a way to take on the next challenging assignment (which requires a rejuggle of your responsibilities at home) that comes your way. If you are on a career break and have been thinking about restarting, check out one of my previous posts here.
I know it is sometimes genuinely hard to balance all your responsibilities. Hang in there, keep at it, don’t give up. Speak more openly about these issues because education and awareness is one of the most important steps towards change. I am looking forward to a time when your jobs as heads of HR will improve the statistics I shared earlier in this post. You know you have it in you. Remind yourselves of your aspirations during the first semester during your HR MBA programme. You owe it to yourselves to accomplish what you set out to.
And we, both men and women, owe it to our daughters who deserve to grow up in a world with many more role models than we have today.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)