Dinner table conversation at my house usually gravitates toward the “How was your day, Dear?” type of discussion. It usually is a real discussion rather than small talk because my wife and I are both professionals working in strange and exotic lands… well not really, but it seems like it at times. She is an engineer working in a field seemingly populated entirely by alpha males and I am an HR professional with typically more female than male professionals. We swap daily anecdotes about how we are often treated differently because of our gender, swear at how screwed up the world has become, then go off to the same jobs the following day without arriving at the best solution for fixing the problem. This led me to wonder, “Is this really a problem?” or is it one of those perceived gaps in life with a firestorm of unrelated solutions swirling around trying to fill it? Other than the obvious discriminatory practices that surface from time to time to highlight the differences in population demographics there is a chance that it is an emotional response and not one based on fact.
A bit of personal history: One of my first clients in my consulting business was a firm expanding their R&D capability. In a true blank slate sort of way, I saw an entire floor of the building with only a few scattered desks occupied by some of the brightest mechanical, software, optical and computer engineers… all of whom were male. Our job was to fill the rest of the desks. At the midpoint of the contract I was complimented in a staff meeting by the man who hired me: “Tom has single handedly changed the gender ratio in the department.” Later he commented to me, “We need to hire more women engineers!” to which I responded, “Why?” He was puzzled by this seemingly unanswerable question. Yes, I had been conscious of presenting a wide slate of candidates to them and was aware that their EEO-1 report must really be skewed toward maleness, but it was always about hiring the most qualified person for the job. No female engineer hired was any less of a qualified professional than her male counterparts.
Studies have shown that the ratio of male to female engineers is still roughly 2:1. There have been investigations into the cause of this phenomenon, but it seems that political correctness always gets in the way of announcing a meaningful conclusion. We assume that it is a societal thing, but there are those who think otherwise. Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers commented in 2005 that “…there are issues of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact less factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” There was no evidence to show whether his comments were based on science or supposition, but he apologized for his remarks and later resigned. I have a gut feeling that he was caught in expressing a bias, but it does call to question whether or not any significant studies can ever be released that would challenge prevailing cultural beliefs. Ironically, for women to be given their due share of that job market we need to know the answer, fix any problems found, and set realistic objectives. Everything is not about a 50/50 gender equity balance.
Likewise, several independent studies show that the human resources profession is composed of as much as 60% to 75% women. The disturbing results of the data also show that there is still a disparity in wages with men making more than women in the same jobs. Because of historic sexist discrimination against women, there is no equivalent political correctness to ask, “Why are more men not considered for HR roles?” Again, societal awareness of the feminine characteristics of being caring, understanding, and yes, even maternal probably makes this as prejudicial toward men as saying that “girls can’t do math.” Could the reason have something to do with the minds of managers selecting their HR leaders? While roughly 50% of the planet’s population is female, only about 20% of senior manager positions are filled by women. It would not be much of a stretch to assume that the gender of HR is seen to be female in these 80% male dominated corner offices who mirror the societal images from which they come.
Yes there is a problem, but it is not with gender equity in the workplace. It is about the apparent lack of data to prove one way or another that there is overt discrimination. Most numbers that do not reflect a 50/50 balance are deemed to be out of whack. Should there be more women engineers? Probably, but who knows for sure. Should there be more men in HR? Yes, but I can’t tell you why. Should there be more women in senior management? Absolutely. If they choose to go there they should not be held back. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some reason other than emotion to answer these questions?
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