Dear HR: Can You See the Inequality?

8 min read | Susan Colantuono

Screen_Shot_2016-04-03_at_9.58.13_AM.pngWhen presenting proposals for their strategic initiatives, D&I executives often face challenges from  colleagues in HR who ask something like this:

"Don't programs for women unfairly favor women over men?"

The question springs from 2 sincerely held beliefs that the:

  1. HR systems1 they've created are gender-neutral
  2. Managers who execute these HR systems make decisions and take actions that are gender-neutral

Unfortunately, neither belief is true. If they were, women would be proportionally represented at all levels of leadership. That’s why, to paraphrase a Adam Grant’s challenge to “wake up and smell the inequality,”  it’s time for HR to wake up and see the inequality.

HR Systems

When it comes to the first belief, it can easily be seen that 4 key HR systems are not gender neutral.
  1. Talent Management (including leadership development and succession)
  2. Performance Management
  3. Compensation & benefits
  4. Recruitment & selection
Talent and Performance Management
Well designed talent and performance management processes are interrelated. Leading Women's research finds that a majority of these systems favor men. In terms of career development, women benefit most from strong messages about the importance of business, strategic, and financial acumen—The Missing 33%® of the career equation for women. But our study finds that, on average, only 25% of leadership competencies and performance measures stress this vital skillset. Instead, most competency models, assessments, performance criteria and related talent development programs overemphasize competencies that are growth areas for men, including various interpersonal and team skills (engaging the greatness in others).
When we recently spoke about this to an audience of HR executives one of them reported, "We are just implementing a coaching program for top talent and we have not considered anything on The Missing 33%® when selecting or preparing our internal coaches." This fairly common situation disadvantages women.
Compensation & Benefits
Recent research by Mercer and others finds that women leave companies because of unequal pay. "Organizations with a robust pay equity process and a dedicated team have greater female representation," but only 35% of surveyed companies report that HR conducts wage equity audits. To the detriment of women and retention, compensation departments don't conduct analyses either because they assume that pay is equal or don't have systems in place to conduct an analysis.
Recruitment & Selection
Bias is built into recruitment and talent acquisition systems in many ways. For example, where and how candidates are sourced can affect the diversity of candidate slates before the interview process even begins. The design of interview processes and questions, as well as assumptions about interests and extracurricular experiences that predict success on the job and/or point to leadership potential, can further encourage bias in recruitment.
If companies and HR functions keep doing what they've always done in these 4 areas, they will continue to get what they've always got - few women at the top. To reduce the leadership gender gap, HR must see that HR systems are not gender-neutral and strive to design systems with as little bias as possible.

1 "Systems" as used here refers to formal HR policies and procedures that guide management behavior.

Managers Actions and Decisions

However, even if HR were able to root out every subtle and hidden inequality from their talent, performance, compensation & benefits and recruitment & selection systems, there would still be significant challenges that would require initiatives to level the playing field (feared by some as "favoring women"). This is because HR systems are implemented by human beings with various mindsets about women, men, careers and leadership.

When executing formal HR systems, the mindsets of managers are likely to undermine the most gender-neutral policies and practices. Additionally, managers' mindsets trigger actions that impact informal talent-related actions and decisions.

Executing HR Systems

Managers' mindsets also undermine the gender neutrality of decisions and actions that they take. For example:

  • Fair performance management systems can be undermined by gender-biased feedback about communication styles. One Stanford study found that women received 2.5 the amount of feedback as men about aggressive communication styles. And that “women consistently received less feedback tied to business outcomes...that vague feedback is correlated with lower performance review ratings for women — but not for men. In other words, vague feedback can specifically hold women back.”
  • Seemingly gender-neutral talent management systems can be undermined by gender-based differences in who is offered development opportunities, who gets developmental assignments, who has informal discussions with managers about the business, and who is invited to external networking opportunities with other professionals, clients, and stakeholders. That’s right: it’s usually men.
  • Compensation systems striving for equal pay are subverted by gender differences in starting salary, but also by the offered level of salary increase. Bureau of Labor Statistics Data shows that the gender wage gap widens with age. Women aged 20-24 earn 92.3 percent of men’s earnings, but women 55-64 earn 76.4 percent.
  • Recruitment and talent acquisition systems are also prone to gender differences. For example, managers may perceive the same interview answer two different ways depending on whether it comes from a woman or a man. Men are generally expected to self-promote, while women candidates who do are evaluated as "pushy." Managers also may ask women different interview questions altogether, e.g. “do you plan to have kids?”

These gender dynamics ensure that HR can't solve the problem of the gender gap solely by engineering gender-neutral policies, practices, and systems.

Managers' Informal Talent & Performance Actions

Finally, existing informal systems such as informal mentorship, networks, and career coaching also favor men. Decades of studies have found that women are excluded from informal mentorship experiences that lead to sponsorship for advancement. Women still cite the "old boys' network" as a barrier to advancement. And finally, women often do not receive career coaching into the jobs with profit and loss responsibility — jobs that position them for advancement into the highest levels of organizations.

So, HR professional, if you think that women's programs "unfairly favor women over men," it's time to objectively evaluate your HR systems using recent research on the retention and advancement of women. Look for and root out the inequality.

Leading Women offers groundbreaking insights on how to minimize gender bias in recruitment, performance management, talent acquisition, and more. Contact us to learn how transforming HR systems can reduce your organization’s barriers to the advancement of women.

Lead ON!


Susan L. Colantuono, CEO


Author: No Ceiling, No Walls and Make the Most of Mentoring

"Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others."
Susan L. Colantuono

About Leading Women
Leading Women is one of the world's premier consulting firms for companies committed to achieving goals for women’s advancement. Its proprietary research is the basis for innovative solutions that deliver unique insights, actionable tools and a business focus. HR, Learning and Development, Diversity & Inclusion and IWiN* clients around the globe have deployed Leading Women's live, virtual and online solutions.
For more information, visit Leading Women, call +1-401-789-0441 or email us
Leading Women is a certified woman-owned business - WBENC. Partner with Leading Women to advance your supplier diversity goals. *IWiN - internal women's initiatives, ERGs, affinity groups and networks.