Plugging into People Power: As a People-Centred Practice, Does Human Resources Appeal to Women's Management Strengths? Annie Gray Asks Four HR High Fliers and Checks How Their Roles Are Changing to Reflect the New Focus on People Power

Article excerpt

Twenty years ago human resources was called "personnel" and tended to focus mainly on administrative and welfare issues in business. As Vodafone's HR director Jan Mottram quips, it was known as the "toilet paper and tea towels" department.

Today's practitioners place HR in a much more strategic role within the business.

Proactive partner rather than functional administrator, HR's main aim is to add value to the organisation through people-centric policies and processes. Keeper of organisational culture and values, it encompasses both today's issues and tomorrow's needs--building a skill base that will help power future business growth.

In short, HR is closely entwined with the development of New Zealand's much-vaunted knowledge economy. It is also a profession in which women seem to be strongly represented.

If membership of the Human Resource Institute of New Zealand is anything to go by, the number of women practitioners is growing. Six years ago women made up about 55 percent of its membership--that's crept up to 70 percent, says HRINZ chief executive Beverley Main.

"While I can only talk about what's going on in our membership base, it seems to reflect what's happening in the wider HR community. There's been a definite swing toward more women in the past few years.

"I think women are coming into their own in the industry because they're really good communicators and HR is largely about communication."

Since the Institute launched its HR Per son of the Year Award two years ago, both winners have been women--Vodafone's Jan Mottram, and Kiwibank's general manager human resources, Catherine Taylor.

However, Mottram herself doesn't think HR is becoming a women's industry--and suggests that perception could be a hangover from old "personnel" days when HR was largely an admin role that didn't really appeal to men. She notes that only one third of HR directors from Vodafone's 20 global companies are women.

That the industry is women-dominated is more perception than reality at senior levels, agrees Avette Kelly, human resources services manager at Auckland City.

"There are more men in the industry at management level but that picture changes further down the HR career ladder, and at entry and mid-career level women certainly dominate."

She believes people are often mistaken about the nature of the role. "HR is not a soft skill. Performance management is not about being nice to people--it is about getting them to perform ... Human resources is also about legislative compliance and is not all touchy-feely stuff as many people seem to think it is."

Christine Parker, director of human resources at Carter Holt Harvey, says that historically H R has had a very strong industrial relations basis. It was largely a transactional and adversarial role. That has now evolved towards more of a transformational model, where relationship capability and dealing with people are equally important--though the transactional element is still there.

There are some aspects of the job that perhaps play to women's strengths, says Kiwibank's Catherine Taylor. She believes women are good in an HR role because they tend to have the emotional sensitivity the position sometimes needs.

They also tend to be good at understanding diversity and the different needs employees have, whether that be family commitments or cultural needs. With two small children, Taylor is very familiar with the juggling required to manage home and work life though having a supportive husband helps.

Having set up HR functions in the fledgling Kiwibank, Taylor's firm belief is that people are the organisation. She sees her role as ensuring staff are recognised as being important and achieving the right balance between people and the desired organisational outcomes.

One focus, she says, is on looking at what HR can do for the bank's customers. …