A Look in the One-Way Mirror: Facing Inequity as a Female HR Executive


In Human Resources, as much as any professional discipline, we women have hit our stride. Given the opportunity to compete in the field, we’ve succeeded: to reduce turnover, attract and retain those diamonds in the rough, and build reputations for respectable (and even press-worthy) organizational culture. It’s been our ticket to the C-suites of the Fortune 500 – and not a moment too soon. And as the scope of the job changes from “intuition” to data-driven strategy, we have the chance to show our adaptability, too.

But then again, our stature puts us in an awkward position. Despite our best efforts to promote organization-wide diversity and inclusion, all too often we discover unfair treatment – especially of women.

And we want to do something about it.

Really, you want to do what’s best for your own professional development and career goals, but you also want to support the marginalized, underrepresented people in your own organization. How can you do both of these things both effectively and fairly? Even if these distinct goals aren’t completely at odds, how do you send a message to those around you what your priorities are?

It’s a question I’ve seen come up to the surface over and over for a long time. Our exit interview software actually came out of a project to identify the greatest barriers to the advancement of women and minorities in the workplace. We’ve uncovered pivotal opportunities for our clients, but we’ve also encountered challenges that most executives would hope to sweep under the rug.

One of the best – and worst – parts of creating a truly anonymous exit interview system is the abundance of brutally honest answers.

These are the real voices of women at one of our clients. This is a large (10,000+) and decentralized organization, but neither a poor performer nor ideologically backwards. The employees’ reasons for leaving, for example, hardly deviate from our measured industry norms. And yet comments like these are far too common:

“The biggest thing I noticed at [the company] is that if you’re a woman, you had better act ladylike. There was nothing more contemptible than a woman who spoke her mind. As a woman you were supposed to just nod and do as you were told. I was described as “aggressive.” I’m not aggressive. I am passionate and dedicated. I take pride in what I do and do it well. This is not what was rewarded. Being demure seems to be ‘leadership’ quality most desired at [the company].”

“My boss had a very hard time providing accolades, at least to the women who reported to her. She didn’t seem to have a problem telling the men who reported to her that they were doing a good job or even giving them credit for work done by somebody else, but she had a hard time telling a woman that she was doing a good job… Most of the time, my boss would cut me off if I started to speak during a meeting.”

“Men are definitely recognized more than women in the department.”

“I was repeatedly harassed by [a male coworker]. When I demanded it stop… [he] went to management and lied.”

“I was harassed several times and nothing was done about it.”

Of course I’ve picked a few especially unpleasant-to-read examples, but haven’t you felt this way at least once in your career? If not, I envy you. If you’re anything like me, this sounds all too familiar, if a bit distant. And, if you’re anything like me, part of why you’re still in the business is because you believe it doesn’t have to be this way.

But what now?

Imagine these were your findings. Or, maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you’ve already faced this issue within your organization. How do you deal with it? Tell us in the comment section.

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About the Author: Deb Dwyer is the founder and president of HSD Metrics, a provider of organizational surveys designed to increase retention, engagement and organizational effectiveness. With over 30 years of combined experience in human resource management and survey research, Deb’s extensive knowledge reaches beyond organizational research to include expertise in work climate improvement, retention, hiring and selection, employee orientation, performance management systems, recognition programs and career development systems. 

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