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Janet Candido is principal of Candido Consulting Group, a company providing human resources services across North America.

When I network with young people who are considering a career in human resources, I always ask them why they are interested in HR. What attracts them? What do they hope to accomplish? The answer is, most often, "Because I want to help people." At the other end of the hierarchy, I was once told by the chief executive of a global firm that, after having been encouraged to add a woman to his all-male leadership team, he decided to create a vice-president of human resources role, because "that's a nice job for a woman."

A woman's role?

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The perception of HR as a woman's profession persists. This image that it is people-based, soft and empathetic, and all about helping employees work through issues leaves it largely populated by women as the stereotypical nurturer. Even today, these "softer" skills are seen as less appealing – or intuitive – to men who may gravitate to perceived strategic, analytical roles, and away from employee relations.

On the upside, the propensity to equate female attributes to human resources has made it the only profession where women have outpaced men in the upper ranks – at least in number. According to an HR study in the United States, women represent 73 per cent of HR manager roles, and 55 per cent of C-suite HR executives – just edging out men. But that may be the closest to gender parity we'll get, given 2014 statistics from the U.S. Department of Labour that reveal men earn up to 40 per cent more than their female counterparts in HR, for similar roles across both junior and senior levels.

Radical shift

The downside is that the HR profession has suffered from a lack of credibility – until now, that is. The times are changing, something both women and men studying or working in HR need to understand. As with nearly every other industry, HR is not immune to disruption. Business needs are changing radically, as are expectations of HR from within the top ranks at large, well-run companies. This change has created an opportunity that places HR in a valuable, new leadership position. As the 2017 Deloitte Global Capital Human Trends survey highlights, thanks to the digital age and an agile mindset, employers are demanding new skills from HR professionals, through the leveraging of technology for more data-driven insights and talent analytics, and employment experiences. These skills are imperative for HR to deliver value to the business – and across the organization.

A quick scan of recruitment ads for senior HR roles already reveals this shift. Reskilling the stock of HR talent is critical and may be why an earlier Deloitte report found an increasing trend for CEOs to bring in non-HR professionals to fill the role of chief human resource officer. This supports my own experience that often when a male executive is responsible for HR, he didn't get there through the HR ranks and may in fact have no HR background, but got there because of his business acumen.

While these new skill requirements will surely appeal to a wider male audience, the reality is that HR professionals will need to combine both those "softer" people skills with "harder" business and analytical skills, not one or the other. Men and women in HR need to elevate their performance if they are to succeed moving forward. For example, performance management, including coaching and developing top talent for leadership roles, is more important than ever. Balancing intuitive ability with strong analytical skills and fluency in business strategy will be key in making recommendations at the board level.

So how can we attract more men and women to the profession who possess the necessary business and analytical skills, in addition to people skills, and who are interested in contributing at a strategic level in order to effect change? How can we support women on the path to the C-Suite? And how do we reposition the role of HR in many organizations to be more strategic?

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Raising expectations

Companies of all sizes would benefit from education and direction on how to use and maximize their HR employees, from the junior level up. Start by putting an HR consultant on the board and an HR person at the leadership table. Demand strategic vision from both and the use of hard metrics to provide relevant insights to the business.

Now is the time to change your expectations of HR and begin to include it in discussions early – and often. HR needs to be seen and positioned as integral to the business, and employers must set expectations – from women and men – to be strategic businesses leaders, not just coaches or party planners. Employers need to underscore and promote diversity on the path to the top. Men need to feel greater acceptance in a traditionally female environment, but both men and women equally need to be trained and supported in their transition, with executive mentors to follow, in order to be successful.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more articles at tgam.ca/careers.

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