According to recent data from ONS and Croner, compiled by CIPD, the people profession is staffed predominantly by women, with a 60:40 split. This is true at all levels of the profession, but it is particularly striking at the junior level, where the split widens to roughly 90:10 women to men. And yet there are increasing instances of organisations asking for all-female shortlists for HR roles.

To explore this issue further, our Managing Director of HR, Emma-Claire Kavanagh, sat down with Amanda Chilcott, Group HR Director at Neptune Energy. An HR professional with 25 years of experience in the field, Amanda shared her insights into this rising HR trend, and offered her best guidance for companies looking to take steps towards more diversity in their workforce.

Are you seeing a rise in all-female shortlists in HR?

I’m often contacted to make recommendations for HR positions. At the moment, more often than not, many of the male names I put forward are met with a short silence and then the admission that the client is actually looking for a woman. And that’s if they don’t outright ask for an all-female list from the get-go.

This wasn’t the case at the start of my career. Over the years, however, the function has become increasingly female dominated and now we risk compounding this imbalance further with all-female shortlists for HR roles.

I believe in diverse shortlists, but they can’t be diverse if they’re made up of just one gender. This trend is particularly troubling in HR where female talent is not in short supply.

What’s the reason for this trend?

I imagine it’s coming from the desire to increase the number of women in organisations, especially in senior leadership positions. And that’s totally understandable. Take Neptune, for example. We want to encourage more women to join us. Our industry – oil and gas – has traditionally been male dominated, so we’re keen to address that imbalance, especially in areas where women are underrepresented, like engineering and technology. So I think it’s important to say that there are times where we might want recruiters to increase the number of female candidates they send our way, but not in HR. It’s not what we need.

And that’s the issue. Placing women in HR is a relatively achievable prospect, so it’s an easy win if you’re just trying to meet company-wide diversity targets. If those placements are made in functions that are already female-dominated, and your other functions stay male-dominated, then what have you really achieved? It certainly won’t be real diversity. You’ve just got a number that looks good on paper.

I think intentions are good, but the risk is that, rather than creating diverse teams, which I think is the ultimate driver of this trend, you’re just making vague, easy gestures towards diversity.

The underlying goal, we can safely assume, is to increase diversity of thinking within organisations; cognitive diversity helps us think more holistically around problems, and businesses deliver better performance as a result. However, that won’t be achieved if diversity is approached like a tick box exercise.

Do you think diversity targets can be beneficial?

Absolutely. There are times when targets work really well. If you look at board diversity, for example, material progress has been made in improving gender representation on boards for just that reason, and hopefully even more diversity will follow. It’s logical for companies to want to cascade that success down through their organisations, but it doesn’t work that way. Different teams have different needs. Companies won’t necessarily duplicate what they achieved at the board level by just duplicating the strategy. Instead they risk creating gendered siloes.

The diversity agenda is complex and multifaceted, but people often default to addressing gender because we can measure it easily. However, in the well-intended pursuit of a worthwhile target, the complexity of the issue gets lost and the approach gets simplified. And rather than encouraging cognitive diversity through your efforts, you can end up doing the opposite.

Are you seeing less men applying for positions in HR?

Unfortunately, yes, particularly at the more junior level. We have a diverse and gender balanced HR leadership team at Neptune, which is great and incredibly enriching, but we’re struggling to find candidates to echo that at the junior level. I think there is a tendency at the moment for men to see HR as a female domain, which will hurt HR functions in the long run.

What’s the risk of a predominantly female HR function?

Ultimately, HR is supposed to be the team driving the diversity agenda, but we risk losing credibility if we can’t properly execute it within our own function. We’re missing out on the opportunity to visibly represent an inclusive, diverse culture to the wider business. Not to mention the fact that companies are missing out on the opportunity to benefit from an HR function that’s made up of a wide range of people with different lived experiences.

What do you recommend?

Tackling workplace gender diversity using an all-female shortlist for an already female-dominated function is much like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We need to be smarter about this issue. It’s no longer a question of getting organisations to acknowledge that diversity is important. We’re there. Now we have to have more thoughtful, nuanced and comprehensive discussions about what true diversity really looks like. And those discussions have to start at the executive and board level, because it’s top-level leadership that truly drives behaviour.

Companies need to figure out their particular “why” when it comes to boosting diversity. They need to know why they are driving it and keep those underlying goals in mind. If you want to make sure that every team has good cognitive diversity, for example, and that everyone who joins feels they can see themselves represented at all levels of the company, then the idea of an all-female shortlist for a female-dominated team becomes incomprehensible. However, if you have a team where women are underrepresented, then it makes sense. You have to remember your underlying goals, focus on how to deliver them and commit to enacting real change.

Written by

Emma-Claire Kavanagh

Emma-Claire is a member of the executive leadership team. She delivers senior interim solutions across all sectors and areas of HR, and has a particular passion for business transformation projects.

Select an enquiry type