Human Resource Management, ideology and gender

An explorative approach to recruiting practices and the special case of executive search firms

Project Report, 2007
13 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. Introduction and objectives

2. Human Resource Management, recruitment practices and the bureaucratic organization

3. The case of Singapore – women’s situation and the role of state discourse

4. The rise of executive search firms and their implications for gender relations

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Brief introduction and objectives

The impact of organizational practices such as recruitment and performance appraisal on gender relations in society has received extensive attention from a number of researchers. Various authors profess the gendered nature of bureaucratic organization and its processes and practices. However, the rise of executive search firms as a specialized form of recruitment, strangely has not sparked much scientific interest. Executive search seems to be perceived as not distinctly different from traditional recruitment. In this paper I would like to suggest, that extensive outsourcing of recruitment to external vendors intensifies the segregating effects of Human Resource practices in terms of gender composition of the workforce.

In my research for this paper I have pursued three interlinked objectives:

1. to define the role of organizational recruitment practices in producing and reproducing gender inequalities, influencing individuals’ lives and career chances
2. to locate the role of state discourse in facilitating reproduction of inequalities through work practices and to illustrate this with the Singaporean case
3. to explore the special case of executive search firms and suggest the potential effects of outsourcing recruitment functions on gender relations in society

My analysis relies heavily on the review of previous studies as well as on two in-depth interviews conducted with recruitment consultants employed in executive search firms in Singapore.

2. Human Resource Management, recruitment practices and the bureaucratic organization

Human Resource Management (HRM) is currently experiencing a great expansion in functions as well as widely increased recognition. It is now broadly defined as “the formal structure within an organization responsible for all the decisions, strategies, factors, principles, operations, practices, functions, activities and methods related to the management of people employed within the organization” (Society for Human Resource Management – SHRM, 2007). According to Noe (2006), in modern management Human Resources is viewed as a strategic partner in business and represents one of the three crucial factors of ‘work inputs’ in work-flow analysis, a common strategic tool in determining and maintaining quality standards in organizations. Even if not all of its functions are always recognized and appreciated by all organizations, the significant impact HR practices and decisions have in influencing the lives of the great majority of people in the workforce is evident. At the very least, HR decisions set the path for individuals’ careers by assessing their knowledge, skills, and personalities in the hiring phase as well as in performance appraisal for possible promotions.

In modern organizations, recruitment – defined as “the practice of soliciting and actively seeking applicants to fill recently vacated or newly created positions using a variety of methods” (SHRM) – is usually based on matching job requirements with candidate profiles regarding apparently objective criteria, such as educational levels as well as measurable skills and personal characteristics/dispositions (Noe, 2006). This corresponds to Weber’s notion of bureaucratic management, in which duties and responsibilities of particular positions are clearly defined and employment is based on qualification in form of “educational certificates” and “thorough expert training” rather than personal favouritism and arbitrariness (Weber, 1958). In bureaucratic management, Weber sees potentially liberating effects for the previously disadvantaged, who now may be able to rise in economic position and status depending on their actual performance and expertise. Indeed, more and more organizations today recognize the crucial role an efficiently managed diverse workforce can play in promoting and even determining success (Noe, 2006), defining diversity as “the key to a well-rounded organization [as well as] bigger profit margins” (Adams, 1998). Many firms have integrated the idea of celebrating diversity in their company culture and have implemented equal opportunity policies, sometimes even including affirmative action practices for women and other minorities (Noe, 2006).

However, the liberating effects of bureaucratic management are – as Weber puts it – “potentially liberating” and not always realized. Bureaucracy as a form of management provides the technical structures for transparent, gender-neutral procedures, but cultural beliefs and meanings pervade every institutional system in society and not always will organizations be able (or willing) to realize this and break through existing patterns (Acker, 1990; Witz, 1992; Dickens, 1998; Benshop, 1998). Following Giddens’ argument: Institutions shape structures, but they do so by drawing upon structural resources themselves (Witz, 1992). Organizations produce and reproduce gender stratification by employing cultural beliefs and meanings in their practices derived from existing societal structures. This means that even companies willing to implement policies that ensure equal opportunities for all candidates – be it for moral or economic reasons – usually do not realize and understand the extent of organizations’ gendered nature.

Joan Acker (1990) was among the first to describe organizations as inherently gendered. She recognized a generally underlying assumption of organizational practices as being apparently gender neutral: The technical processes – including recruitment practices – in organizations are widely thought to be neutral regarding not only gender, but also other stratifying factors such as religion, ethnicity, class and sexuality. A variety of regulated procedures and an ideal of “scientifically valid methods” (Noe, 2006) of assessment (f.e. in job analysis, interviewing and psychological testing) in the recruitment process lead to the belief, that these practices are by definition egalitarian and therefore treat all individuals equally. In this sense, HRM and its recruiting functions are expressions of Taylor’s notion of scientific management: Job analysis, candidate assessment and the matching of job requirements with individuals’ aptitudes are conducted following specific, scientific rules and methods developed by management experts and scientists (Noe, 2006). Thus, technically, the individual who is best suited for a specific job by scientific measures, will be employed. However, the ideology of scientific objectivity and superiority obscures the fact that cultural definitions and meanings generally influence people’s understanding of the world and that managers – in defining job requirements and assessing candidates – are also influenced by existing structures. The advice HRM-textbooks give to organizations that perceive discrimination as damaging and support the idea of a diverse workforce is telling of the power of scientific ideology: “All employees need to be made aware of the potential damaging effects of stereotypes” (Noe, 2006). Though raising awareness/understanding of stereotypes may be a valid and powerful measure to avoid discrimination in candidate and employee assessment, the reality of culturally influenced definitions in management – and specifically in recruitment practices – remains unrecognized. As Acker (1990) argues, the organizations’ very nature, its processes and practices really are defined around the idea of a male norm. Lying at the core of every organization, the definition of the “job” itself and – related to this – the defined “characteristics of the disembodied, [ideal] worker [as full-time available, highly qualified and work-oriented] correspond rather to the assumed characteristics of male workers than to those of female workers in day-to-day reality” (Benshop, 1998).

The dynamics of the gendered nature of organizations can be seen as a function of what Weber called the iron cage of bureaucracy. Technically, bureaucratic management provides potential liberation. However, the cultural and socio-historical context of organizations as institutions in society influences the implementation and practice of technically neutral structures. Ideologies of the technical superiority of bureaucratic organization and the objectivity of science largely obscure the reality of gendered organizations.

Linda Dickens (1998) argues, that “HRM has different implications for men and women at work [and that] apparantly gender-neutral – but in reality gendered – HR concepts and policies perpetuate rather than challenge gender inequality”. According to Dickens, the way organizations define crucial concepts such as commitment and flexibility facilitates male career advancement rather than female careers. She contends that, based on research, commitment is a result of individual job and work experience rather than the personal characteristic it usually is taken for. Commitment is generally “measured by inputs – [f.e.] visible hours at work, ‘face-time’ – rather than outputs [such as quality of achievement]. […] The way an organizations defines commitment may be gendered, making it inevitable that men will be able to display the desired characteristic to an extent greater than can women” (Dickens, 1998). When women cannot live up to the defined requirement as well as men, the problem is perceived as arising from deficiencies in women rather than erroneous measures and definitions.

Singh and Vinnicombe (2000) took the idea of gendered meanings of commitment a step further. They discovered that the term of commitment is widely used in assessment without its meaning being defined, and that there are significant “differences in male and female unpromted meanings of commitment at work” (Singh & Vinnicombe, 2000), as well as between different management levels. Women typically understand commitment as less visible and think of high involvement, availability and being people-concerned, whereas men (and top managers) define commitment in terms of proactiveness, being innovative, adding value and being ready for challenge. If a (typically male) manager has to interpret individuals’ signals of commitment – be it in the hiring or promoting stage – assessment is likely to be influenced by the fact that definitions and ideas differ. From this perspective, not only managers, but also individual women are actively involved in unwittingly reproducing gender structures.

Competence and productivity are another two related concepts in organizations, that frequently pose problems to women. Rees and Garnsey (2003) argue that competence – in reality a learnt skill – is frequently treated as an individual’s inherent trait. Additionally, many value-adding aspects and qualities that women are thought to bring to work remain less visible and unrecognized, rendering women as less ‘productive’ and less ‘competent’ than men, and thus resulting in ‘justifying’ less rewards in terms of remuneration as well as career advancement (refer to Dickens, 1998; Rees & Garnsey, 2003; ILO, 2007). If competence is seen as a trait crucial to effective managerial performance and women are perceived to be inherently less competent, they are likely to face glass ceilings.

Another effect documented by Carli and Eagly (1999) concerns the differing perception of competence in male and female managers. They found that although assertiveness and self-promotion were essential to competence in men, knowledgeable and capable women who engaged in assertive and dominating behaviour were perceived negatively and as incompetent. Female managers had to be objectively competent as well as display a warm personality to be perceived as competent. Also, women who frequently disagreed with co-workers were negatively sanctioned more than men who did so. “Women are more constrained than men in the kinds of behaviours that they can engage in and still be influential” (Carli&Eagly, 1999). Thus, women seem to have to carry a double burden, as they have to compete with men to reach imposed, male benchmarks, while at the same time being expected to act within ‘gender-appropriate’ boundaries, not being permitted to engage in behaviours that are perceived as ‘not feminine enough’. Similarly, concepts of leadership, management, motivation and flexibility are defined in such ways that the typical male worker will more readily be able to fulfill the requirements than a woman (refer to Dickens, 1998; Powell, 1999; Wilson, 2003,…).

Definitions of these crucial concepts employed by organizations to assess job candidates and employees all center around the notion of the abstract worker, which is “implicitly loaded with masculine connotations” (Benshop, 1998). In the natural process of categorizing and making sense of the world, simplified associations are attached to men and women as groups (gender stereotyping), which produces and is in turn produced by a dualistic view of gender in which men and women are seen as antipodes and inherently different. Much of the attributes associated with women and men stem from the construction of motherhood and fatherhood (Kugelberg, 2006), and their perceived reconcilability with the abstract job and its defined requirements perpetuates gender inequalities. Because of the underlying socio-cultural beliefs, reflected in the combination of “gender connotations of care responsibilities” (cultural idea that women’s responsibility lies within the family) and “gender connotations of qualification profiles” (Benshop, 1998), the technically egalitarian structures of bureaucratic organization, Human Resource Management and recruitment practices continually produce and reproduce gender stratification in the workplace and society.

3. The case of Singapore – women’s situation and the role of state discourse

The socio-cultural beliefs and assumptions of gender equality that underlie organizational practices are often influenced and reinforced by state rhetoric and policies (Chan, 2000). In this context, Singapore provides an excellent example as a modern, economically thriving Asian state, whose government – perhaps for its own purposes – decidedly holds on to patriarchal discourses.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2006, a comprehensive World Economic Forum study on gender equality, Singapore currently ranks 65th in overall gender equality among the 115 countries assessed – behind a number of other Asian countries such as the Philippines (6th) Thailand (40th) and even China (63rd). The female-to-male ratio for labour force participation is 0,66. Women in Singapore earn an estimated 51% in overall average annual income of what men receive, with the gap closing to 81% in wages for similar work. Of professional and technical workers, women make up 45%. However, only 26% of all legislators, senior officials and managers are female. On the other hand, in education, women have been closing the gap in terms of enrolment ratios (primary education: 0,93; secondary education: 0,95 and tertiary education: 0,86). Summarized, women in Singapore have been attaining higher levels of education, but still face a glass ceiling in pursueing their careers and fall far short of earning equal incomes in comparison to Singaporean men. In their 2007 report on ‘Global Employment Trends for Women’, the International Labour Organization notes as one of the main issues in Sout East Asia “invisible underemployment based on skill mismatch, namely women taking [/receiving] jobs that do not make use of their skills”.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Human Resource Management, ideology and gender
An explorative approach to recruiting practices and the special case of executive search firms
National University of Singapore  (Department of Sociology)
Sociology of work
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
459 KB
Human, Resource, Management, Sociology, Soziologie, Ideologie, Gender, HR, HRM, Human Resource Management, Recruiting, discrimination, Diskriminierung, Rekrutierung, Personalauswahl
Quote paper
Shirley Tuchtfeldt (Author), 2007, Human Resource Management, ideology and gender, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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