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European J. International Management, Vol. 3, No. 4, 2009 457

Departmental status in light of a growing

proportion of female staff: the case of

human resource management

Astrid Reichel*, Julia Brandl and

Wolfgang Mayrhofer

Interdisciplinary Group of Management and Organisational Behaviour,

WU Vienna, Althanstrasse 51,

Vienna 1090, Austria

Email: Email:


*Corresponding author

Abstract: Human Resource Management (HRM) has a history of striving

for acceptance and legitimacy in relation to top and line management.

The identification of factors influencing HRM status, therefore, is very

important for the field. One of these relevant factors is gender. On the

occupational level, there is evidence from various occupations that an increase

in the proportion of women is associated with a status loss in these

occupations. Besides one stream of literature that states that gender is an

omni-relevant and -present category, there are also other approaches which

hold that the category of gender has lost its relevance, and functional attributes

are the dominant categories in the workplace today. Using a multilevel model

of 1508 companies located in 17 countries, this study analyses the impact of

gender composition and functional attributes on the organisational status of the

HR department. It reveals that while gender still has a significant influence on

status, education and experience are more important.

Keywords: HRM; human resource management; status; strategic integration;

gender; education; experience.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Reichel, A., Brandl, J.

and Mayrhofer, W. (2009) ‘Departmental status in light of a growing

proportion of female staff: the case of human resource management’,

European J. International Management, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp.457–477.

Biographical notes: Astrid Reichel works as an Assistant Professor at the

Department of Management, Vienna University of Economics and Business.

She received her Master and Doctoral degrees in Business Administration

from the University of Vienna. Her research focuses on international and

comparative human resource management, professionalisation of HRM, the

HRM-performance-link and careers.

Julia Brandl is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of

Management, at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. She has a

Diploma Degree in Public Administration and Political Sciences from University

of Konstanz, Germany, and a Doctoral Degree in Business Administration

from Vienna University of Economics and Business. Her research focuses on

cultural modernisation and its implications for the legitimacy of human

resource management.

Copyright © 2009 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.

458 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

Wolfgang Mayrhofer is Professor of Business Administration and holds a

Chair for Management and Organisational Behaviour at Vienna University of

Economics and Business, Austria. Previously, he held teaching and research

positions at the University of Paderborn and the Dresden University of

Technology, both in Germany. His research interests focus on international

comparative research in human resource management and leadership, careers

and systems theory. He has co-edited, co-authored and authored 22 books and

more than 100 book chapters and peer-reviewed articles. He regularly conducts

training sessions for both public and private organisations, especially in the

area of outdoor training.

1 Introduction

The history of Human Resource Management (HRM) has long been and still is

characterised by a constant pursuit of acceptance and legitimacy, especially in relation

to top and line management (Antony and Crichton, 1969). HR scholars argue that the

eligible status of HRM depends on the full support by and participation in the top

management group in conjunction with integration into strategic decision-making.

Although some authors argue that not only the role as a ‘strategic partner’ but also

undertaking short term administrative tasks can create value for the firm (Ulrich, 1997),

a large body of research explicitly or implicitly stresses the importance of being able to

influence strategic top management decisions. The research field of strategic HRM has

grown extensively over the years, but in many organisations top managers and line

managers do not concede the high status of a strategically important function to HR

departments (Buyens and De Vos, 2001). For the ongoing efforts to advance the status of

HR departments, it is important to identify detrimental as well as beneficial factors and

find out how they affect the status of HR departments.

One of these potentially important factors is gender. HRM is dominated by women

(Simpson and Lenoir, 2003). Especially on the staff level, across all industrialised

countries women hold well over 50% of all HR positions (Brandl et al., 2008a). Over the

last decades, their numbers both at the staff and managerial level have steadily increased

more than in any other managerial function (Roos and Manley, 1996). Despite the

awareness of the large number of female HR professionals and the ongoing feminisation

of HRM, gender as a potentially relevant factor for the status of HR departments has not

attracted much attention. Apart from the organisational demography debate peaking in

the 1990s (e.g. Williams and O’Reilly III, 1998), there is comparatively little empirical

insight into the effects of organisational gender demography, i.e. the gender composition

of the organisation’s workforce on organisational processes and outcomes.

On the occupational level, however, there is a large body of literature that addresses

the relevance of gender as a category in the context of work and the status effects

associated with the quantitative dominance of women in occupations: Much of the early

20th century provides evidence that an increase in the proportion of women in

occupations is associated with these jobs being devaluated and losing status. Secretaries

and school teachers are typical examples for these developments (e.g. Legge, 1987;

Departmental status: the case of HRM 459

Wetterer, 2000). However, over the past four decades societal developments such as

the striving for equal opportunities, women’s rights, gender equality or increasing

diversity have left their marks on the institutional context, especially in the area of legal

regulations, and also at the occupational and organisational level. Thus, compared to the

mid-20th century the proportion of women in higher education (Ramirez and Wotipka,

2001) and in the active workforce has increased (for the USA, see e.g. Toossi, 2002), and

women have greater access to different segments of the labour market including top

positions in business and politics. Parallel to that, organisations have introduced – by

following modern management knowledge and/or institutional pressures such as legal

requirements or public opinion – more formalised management instruments and

processes in most areas of HRM, including recruitment, selection and promotion of

employees. Among other factors, these processes reduce the amount of biased decisionmaking

(e.g. thinking in stereotypical gender categories) and strengthen the importance

of categories such as formal expertise, experience and past track record (Pasero, 2002).

To be sure, career disadvantages of women are still clearly evident in terms of

income and hierarchical progression (e.g. Allmendinger and Podsiadlowski, 2001).

However, the fact that women are a self-evident part of the workforce and increasingly

represented at all levels of public life and organisations revives the question about the

effects of the proportion of women at the occupational, but also at the organisational

level. As outlined above, the large body of recent research focusing on the effects of

women’s entry into professions has been conducted at the occupational level without

considering organisational factors (Hardin, 1991). At the organisational level, research

addressing the effects of gender demography within organisations focuses on salary

(Pfeffer and Davis-Blake, 1987) and disregards status.

This paper analyses the effects of the proportion of female HR specialists on the

status of HRM within companies. It argues that gender is still a relevant category in the

context of work; thus gender composition of the HR department has an effect on HRM

status. Owing to the changing societal context we also expect functional characteristics

such as experience and education to influence the status of the HR department. Data for

the empirical study come from Cranet, an international research network dedicated to

analysing HRM developments in public and private sector organisations with more than

200 employees at the national and country-comparative level in a trend study which

began in 1989 (Brewster et al., 2004). Currently, 41 countries are part of the network.

For our analysis, data are used from the survey conducted in 2004. One thousand

five hundred and eight private companies from 17 industrialised countries are included in

the empirical study.

This paper makes three core contributions to the HR literature. First, by analysing the

relevance of gender composition, a factor that has been largely ignored, it adds to one of

the core issues of HRM, i.e. identifying and understanding variables that help to improve

the status of HRM. Second, focusing on the organisational-level transcends the dominant

occupational view and allows a more refined analysis of gender composition effects,

a better understanding of organisational processes and the formulation of consequences

useful for managerial action. The focus on the organisational level follows multiple calls

to use organisations instead of industries and occupations as the primary unit of analysis

460 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

(e.g. Bielby and Baron, 1984; Reskin et al., 1999). Third, explicitly targeting the status of

an occupation in organisations also allows for a more fine-grained study of the dependent

variable status. The great majority of gender studies have used income gaps as a proxy

for occupational status.

With the use of a large international sample that includes individual, organisational

and contextual variables, we also respond to calls for more comparative as well as

multilevel research, each of which holds the promise of a greater understanding of gender

composition effects.

2 Theoretical background

2.1 Relevance of gender as a category in the work context

Broadly speaking, three approaches have emerged in research on gender. The first is

mainly rooted in feminist research and stresses the continuing relevance of gender as a

category in work and in other contexts. In contrast, researchers mainly from a modernist

background claim an increasing irrelevance of gender as a category of difference in

modern societies. They point towards decreasing gender differences in various societal

segments. The third approach is rooted in the research on the concept of world society.

It holds a differentiated view claiming that there are areas in which gender inequalities

remain unchanged (e.g. income), but there are also fields where gender differentiation

has disappeared (e.g. law, access to education). In some areas, gender differentiation

depends on the prevalence of specific conditions. Context (especially work) is highlighted

as important (Heintz, 2001).

Authors stressing the ongoing importance of gender as a category basically follow the

argumentation of West and Zimmerman (1991) that gender is omnipresent and -relevant

and that ‘doing gender’ is unavoidable. Accordingly, they see gender differentiation as

very relevant for the constitution and legitimation of institutions and institutional systems

(Knapp, 2001). Gender as a category is constitutively embedded in the continuing

reproduction of gender inequality at work. Ridgeway (2001) argues that the ongoing

differentiation of employees according to their gender is due to interaction. In

interactions the use of the category gender is seen as unavoidable and in work life

interactions are inevitable. These processes lead to gendered labelling of occupations.

Specific work is arbitrarily associated with men or women (Gildemeister et al., 2003).

When there is a change in the dominance of one sex in an occupational field it is usually

connected to a re-interpretation of the occupation. This re-interpretation happens ex post.

After the change people try to create a fit between the respective occupation and the sex

that has newly gained dominance in the occupation. This process is highly selective and

arbitrary. The female- or male-dominated occupation is integrated into a coherent system

of reference and accepted as ‘typical’ female or male. In order to find social acceptance,

these patterns of assignment and definition of male and female work need to appear

plausible. The basis for plausibility in ‘doing gender’ (Seeg, 2000, p.40) processes is

gained through analogy building between the occupation and other activities coherent

Departmental status: the case of HRM 461

with the current female (or male) stereotype. The high degree of selectivity and

arbitrariness in the assignment of stereotypes can even be found within one occupation,

e.g. female X-ray assistants constitute their aptitude by stressing the necessary social

competence while male X-ray assistants point out the technical skills necessary to do the

job (Teubner, 2004). Interpreting an occupation as ‘typical’ male or female in most cases

not only assigns differences but also different values to certain tasks and occupations.

Authors belonging to the group researching the persistence of gender inequality thus

claim that processes of modernisation do not leave much of a trace when it comes to

gender-hierarchical distribution of power (Wetterer, 2000).

In contrast, the second group named above exhibits ‘skepticism about the use of

gender as an analytical category’ (Bordo, 1990, p.135). These authors question whether

the category gender is outdated (Maihofer, 1995) or they claim a relative reduction in

gender effects (Pasero, 1995). Pasero (1994, 1995, 2002) challenges the omnipresence

and -relevance of the category gender and argues that it has lost its power as the leading

category. The crucial factor in modern society is a functional one. Because of this ‘new’

differentiation according to functional differences, society is not pre-structured by

asymmetrical gender relations. The semantics of inequality and asymmetry between men

and women are replaced by semantics of equality. More than ten years ago, Pasero

(1995) predicted that in everyday life in modern societies the rigid categorisation based

on gender will fade. The asymmetries between men and women as well as the mere

differentiation itself will decrease and finally will no longer make any social sense.

Stratified societies will change into functionally differentiated ones. This is based on the

assumption that categories are only valid as long as they are associated with an approved

societal mentality. Gender will make less and less sense while the social sense of

functional categories increases.

Pasero (2002) describes the coexistence of the two viewpoints presented above as a

paradox in gender research. On one hand research focusing on gender inequalities is

conducted in a more and more differentiated way. On the other hand the relevance of

routines of differentiation between men and women are more and more challenged. The

first group criticises the latter and argues that de-thematisation differs from irrelevance.

Even if gender is declared as functionally irrelevant, it is very effective on an affective

level (Knapp, 2001).

The third group of authors also diagnoses decreasing relevance in the category gender

but their view is more differentiated. Although they argue that a model which focuses on

differences between men and women has been displaced by a norm of gender equality,

they acknowledge that there are mechanisms that hinder the realisation of this principle

of equal chances (Heintz, 2001). Their line of arguments is based on the notion of

world society (e.g. Meyer et al., 1997), a stream of research that focuses on global

developments, and shows that equal opportunity norms are a truly global trend that is not

limited to postmodern western milieus. Irrespective of economic development and

cultural traditions countries at least formally subscribe to the principle of equal

opportunity. This admission is necessary in order to legitimate themselves vis-à-vis the

world public (Ramirez and McEneaney, 1997). Worldwide ratification of the Convention

on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is

important evidence for the recognition of inequalities and their interpretation as

illegitimate (Wotipka and Ramirez, 2005).

462 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

In connection with the worldwide implementation of the norm of equal opportunity,

the de-institutionalisation of gender emerges. The thesis of the de-institutionalisation of

gender differentiation states that in today’s modern societies, gender differentiation is not

routinely anchored in institutions. Mutual expectations of a certain gendered behaviour

are questioned and decisions for or against a certain behaviour are dependent on the

situation and (the) conditions at hand. There was a shift in the conditions for reproduction

of inequality. De-institutionalisation, however, does not equal a mere loss of relevance

of gender as a social category. Gender-based differentiation is instead seen as one

means of social differentiation that can but does not have to be used (Heintz and

Nadai, 1998; Heintz, 2004). Maintenance and reproduction are dependent on context.

Gender-based differentiation is instable and can thus be affected by conditions and

context (Gildemeister et al., 2003).

2.2 Gender composition and status

Authors stressing the unavoidability of doing gender explain that occupations are

arbitrarily stereotyped as ‘typical’ male or female according to the momentary sex

dominance. They further argue that gendering occupations cannot be separated from

valuation. The change in sex dominance in a certain occupation is closely linked to a

change in the status of the occupation. Feminisation of occupations leads to a status loss

(Wetterer, 2000). This is because gendered labelling and stereotyping includes gender

status beliefs. These are assumptions about differences in status and values between the

sexes. Such assumptions are based on the idea that one sex outclasses the other

(Ridgeway, 2001). A number of studies shows that most gender-stereotypes assign men a

higher status than women, i.e. male-stereotyped characteristics and behaviour are valued

more highly than female ones (e.g. Eagly, 1987; Conway et al., 1996). Managerial

authority is one of those traditionally masculine-stereotyped characteristics (Berthoin and

Izraeli, 1993; Anker, 1997). It is valued much more highly than attributes that match

staff-level positions. Work that is associated with women tends to be instrumentalised

and subordinated. In contrast to the division of labour based on sex differences where

biological sex is the key and verifiable basis for the division, the gendering of work is

not ‘natural’ and self-evident but needs deliberate effort (Gildemeister et al., 2003).

Experimental studies show that tasks prevalent in occupations labelled as female are

interpreted as less demanding, which is why a lower wage level is legitimate (e.g. Major

and Forcey, 1989). Accordingly, the gender composition of an occupation was found to

have a significant effect on the wage level (Baron and Newman, 1990; England, 1992).

Female-dominated job categories and industries are concentrated on a low wage level

(e.g. Allmendinger and Podsiadlowski, 2001).

Research focusing on the effects of gender composition and the status of occupations

accredits and stresses gender as an important category for work. They describe various

status effects not only for the status of ‘female’ occupations compared to ‘male’ ones but

also the effects of horizontal segregation (Wetterer, 2000), ghettoisation (Reskin and

Ross, 1990) or other subcutaneous forms of gender-based distribution of status, e.g.

lower status of medical or judicial disciplines that are dominated by women such as

pediatrics or family law (Böge, 1995).

Departmental status: the case of HRM 463

Researchers stressing the omni-presence and -relevance of gender issues are not

the only ones claiming to see status differences between female- and male-dominated

occupations. World society scholars do as well. Although they argue that a model

focusing on male-female differences has been displaced by a norm of gender equality,

they acknowledge that there are mechanisms that hinder the realisation of this principle

of equal chances (Heintz, 2001). They claim that ‘egalitarian gains in one domain are

accompanied by new forms of stratification’ (Ramirez and Wotipka, 2001, p.232).

The classification of certain occupations as ‘typically’ male or female, thus, is not

inalterable. Ridgeway (2001) states that it can change between age groups and it can also

vary between different organisations. A change in gender composition within a certain

occupation or an organisation can be one reason for a change in the gender ‘label’.

It has often been claimed that the assignment of people to occupations and positions

takes place mainly in organisations and that it is not the labour market but the companies

that decide who to recruit or promote (Wolf and Fligstein, 1979). Thus, it is very

puzzling that the level of the organisation does not attract much interest in empirical

gender research. The vast majority of research findings are based on data from the level

of occupations or industries. Qualitative studies focus on interactive processes. However,

neither occupations nor industries ‘employ workers or constitute the settings in which

people work’ (Reskin et al., 1999, p.336). This was already criticised in the 1980s (Wolf

and Fligstein, 1979; Baron and Bielby, 1980). But 20 years later, researchers still call for

a focus on the organisational level because companies ‘link the “macro” and “micro”

dimensions of work organization and inequality’ (Baron and Bielby, 1980, p.738). Some

assumptions and a handful of studies exist on the organisational level indicating the

relevance of organisational conditions. They have shown that ‘levels of inequality in

work organisations are affected by organisational demography …, the degree to which

personnel practices are formalized’ (Reskin, 2000, p.707). None of these studies,

however, focuses on the status of an occupation within companies, despite it being, as

argued in the introduction, the most relevant factor for HRM.

2.3 Gender composition and status in HRM

Today, women constitute the majority of employees working in HRM. In an empirical

study of 2004 data from 22 countries including the majority of EU countries plus Israel,

the USA, New Zealand and the Philippines, Brandl et al. (2008a) show that in all of these

countries the majority of HRM staff is female. In most cases the proportion ranges from

60 to 80%. In France, the number of women in HRM is especially high at 95%. Over the

last decades HRM has undergone massive feminisation. In the USA, for example,

women’s representation in HRM rose from 27.3% in 1970 to 41.5% in 1980 and to

53.2% in 1990 (Simpson and Lenoir, 2003). Compared to the staff level, the percentage

of women holding HR director positions is much lower. This reflects the typical pattern

of vertical occupational segregation (e.g. Allmendinger and Podsiadlowski, 2001), one

of the most recurring phenomena in gender research (Reskin, 1993). Within Europe

percentages vary between 14 in Spain, 21 in Austria and Germany and 59 and 64 in the

UK and Hungary, respectively. In Australia, 55.19% of all HR directors are female,

in the USA the number is 50.59 (Brandl et al., 2008b). Despite considerable variation

464 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

between countries and a pattern of vertical segregation, more recent empirical research

indicates that the feminisation of HR departments after 1970 also led to an increase in the

number of women in managerial HR functions (Hardin, 1991; Roos and Manley, 1996;

Blau et al., 1998).

However, HRM has not always been a women’s job. As in many other occupations

there have been changes in the dominance of one or the other sex and also in this case a

re-interpretation of the tasks took place. After World War II there was a labour shortage.

The competition of companies in finding and recruiting employees positively influenced

the status of personnel management. The personnel manager was seen as very important

for the company. This was accompanied by the creation of professional associations

which were active in professionalising their knowledge base and the position of

personnel within management.

“This work and the status and salary scale of personnel managers suggested the

profession was now identified as integral to management and predominantly

male. At least in the short term, the transformation to the positive approach was

built upon factors that operated to limit the participation of women in personnel

management. The transformation expressed and entrenched the gender interests

of the … men engaged in personnel management.” (Trudinger, 2004, p.104)

For the last three decades, HRM has increasingly become a female profession.

Accordingly, analogies were found to stereotype HRM as a ‘typical’ female job. For

example, ‘personnel as a function dedicated to the management of people would seem

to be an “ideal” job for women’ (Gooch and Ledwith, 1996, p.99). Female attributes,

however, match profiles of lower level positions more than senior managerial positions.

Within the HR profession, sex-role-stereotyped images tend to be taking care of others

(Canniffe, 1985; Gooch and Ledwith, 1996) and bridging capital and labour in lower

level positions not including strategic managerial work (Gooch, 1994). On the other

hand, managerial authority is traditionally a masculine stereotype (Berthoin and Izraeli,

1993; Anker, 1997). It is valued much more highly than attributes that match staff-level


3 Hypotheses

One stream of feminist research argues that gender is a category constitutively embedded

in the continuing reproduction of gender inequality at work. For many occupations,

the highly selective and arbitrary process of labelling an occupation or certain tasks

as female or male has been shown (e.g. Legge, 1987; Teubner, 2004). This deliberate

effort to interpret work as male or female is very closely linked to value. Gendered

labelling in most cases includes assumptions about differences in status and values

between sexes (Ridgeway, 2001). Empirical studies convincingly demonstrate that most

gender stereotypes assign men a higher status than women. Not only occupations

dominated by women (horizontal segregation) but also tasks within one occupation

majoritarianly carried out by women have a lower status. This is especially true for

strategic managerial tasks (vertical segregation) that are clearly male stereotyped

(Eagly, 1987; Berthoin and Izraeli, 1993; Conway et al., 1996; Anker, 1997).

Departmental status: the case of HRM 465

Although these findings are not concerned with occupational status within

organisations, the status effect of stereotyping seems to be so strong and universal that

we also expect it to appear within organisations. We assume a high proportion of women

on the staff level lead to labelling HRM as female and thus to a devaluation. On the level

of the most senior HR person, we argue that strategic managerial work in the top

management team does not fit female stereotypes. Thus, if a woman holds this position it

is less likely that she is involved in strategic decisions.

H1: Gender composition of the HR department affects the departmental status of the

HR department.

H1a: Higher proportions of women are associated with lower organisational status.

H1b: HR departments led by a female HR director have a lower organisational status

than those led by men.

Although we presume that the core argument concedes that gender is still a relevant

category not only at the societal, but also at the organisational level, we take a

differentiated position. Adhering to the paradox of contradictory concurrency of erosion

and reproduction of gender segregation (Wetterer, 2004), we also attach value to the

international trend of equal opportunity. While we do not assume that gender as a

category loses its relevance and is completely displaced by functional attributes, we still

believe that functional attributes have gained importance. The global trend of equal

opportunity is so extensive that countries subscribe to the principle of equality between

men and women regardless of their cultural tradition and economic development. Thus,

we assume that while gender continues to be relevant, functional differentiation, i.e.

education and experience, too, influence the status of the HR department.

H2: Functional attributes affect the status of the HR department.

H2a: HRM departments led by more experienced HR directors have a higher

organisational status than those led by less experienced directors.

H2b: HRM departments led by HR directors with higher education have a higher

organisational status than those led by directors without higher education.

Although trends of equal opportunity are truly global and are subscribed to by countries

with very different cultural and economic backgrounds, there are differences in speed as

well as in extent to which countries, e.g. ratify conventions. The CEDAW, for example,

was ratified immediately and fully by postmodernist industrialised countries whereas

many Muslim countries ratified it much later and had major concerns regarding some

articles (Wotipka and Ramirez, 2005). The countries in the sample all are western

industrialised countries and the companies studied are private ones. They also feel high

pressure to admit to principles of equality in order to legitimate themselves vis-à-vis

the world public (Ramirez and McEneaney, 1997). We argue that these organisational

and national contexts provide the most fertile ground for truly implementing equal

opportunity. Thus, we argue that functional attributes in western industrialised societies

are even more important for differentiation than the category of gender.

H3: Functional attributes contribute to a greater extent to the explanation of organisational

status than gender composition.

466 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

4 Methodology

4.1 Sample

For the analysis, we use data from 1508 companies located in 17 countries worldwide.

Our propositions are explicitly concerned with the organisation, but although our study

focuses on the company level, its nested structure has to be taken into account because of

its complex variability (see below). Besides, it is likely that not only variables on the

company but also on the country-level influence the status of the HR department

(Brandl et al., 2008b). Thus, we introduce country-level control variables.

Data at the company level have been generated within Cranet, a research network

dedicated to analysing developments in HRM in public and private sector organisations

with more than 200 employees in a national, cross-national and quasi-longitudinal way

since 1989 (see Brewster et al., 2004). For the current analysis, survey data of 1508

private sector companies from 17 countries is used. In creating the sample, we aimed at

covering a certain geographical range plus a variety in traditions of equal opportunity.

Thus, the final choice of countries covers Southern-, Northern-, Eastern- and Central

Europe plus Australia and the USA. The year of introduction of women’s suffrage as a

very basic form of equal opportunity ranges from 1902 in parts of Australia and 1906 in

Finland up to 1971 in Switzerland (Ramirez et al., 1997). The national samples are

largely representative of the company population; response rates range from 5% in the

Czech Republic and France to 79% in Bulgaria. All respondents are HR directors, i.e. the

most senior person in the HR department.

Two of the three measures used on the country level are aggregated from the

representative country samples. For country-level data on enabling social policy

practices, the analysis uses part of a scale and the corresponding country values

published by Mandel and Semyonov (2006).

4.2 Variables

4.2.1 Status of the HR department

The dependent variable is measured at the company level. It includes both potential

(‘formal’) and enacted (‘informal’) forms of strategic influence (Galang and Ferris,

1997). Therewith we follow Provan’s (1980) concept of power differentiating between

potential power as the capacity to exert influence (e.g. formal authority, membership in

key decision-making groups) and enacted power as the actual use of this power by

allocating resources (e.g. responsibility for pivotal activities). Formal influence is

measured as representation of the HR director on board (‘1’ = yes, ‘0’ = no) and informal

influence as the degree of involvement in strategy formulation (‘3’ = from outset,

‘2’ = through consultation, ‘1’ = on integration, ‘0’ = not consulted). A composite

measure with both items equally weighted ranges from 0 to 2. During the history of

HRM the group to which personnel practitioners have to look for acceptance and

legitimacy most critically and frequently is their own management (Antony and Crichton,

1969). The ‘history of personnel specialists … is the history of a struggle for status to

become full members of the management team’ (Antony and Crichton, 1969, p.165).

Thus, status and authority depend on becoming part of management (Watson, 1977,


Departmental status: the case of HRM 467

4.2.2 Gender composition of the HR department

We use two variables in order to capture the gender composition of the HR department in

a certain company. The first is the organisational demography variable that captures the

percentage of female employees (compared to male employees) working in the HR

department and thus ranges from 0 to 100. To complete the measurement of gender

composition we additionally consider the most visible and prominent person of HRM in a

company, i.e. the most senior HR person. The variable is coded as ‘0’, if the HR director

is a man and is coded as ‘1’, if the director’s position is held by a woman.

4.2.3 Functional attributes

As outlined above, especially the modernist approach stresses the importance of

functional differentiation. Two characteristics often regarded as prerequisites for

managerial positions are education (Long, 1984; Monks, 1993; Gooch, 1994) and

business experience (Monks, 1993; Simpson and Lenoir, 2003). Experience is measured

as the number of years working in HRM. Education is coded as ‘1’, if the HR director

has an academic degree and as ‘0’, if she or he does not have a higher education.

4.2.4 Company-level control variables

On the company level, we control for the size of the company (number of employees)

and the relative size of the HR department. This is measured as the number of employees

working in the HR department as a percentage of the number of all company employees.

Besides the two gender demographic variables in question we control for the percentage

of female workforce and the absolute difference between the percentage of women

working in the HR department and the percentage in the whole company. It is one of

the basic assumptions of gender demographic research that demographic similarity is

beneficial for various organisational processes.

4.2.5 Country-level control variables

On the organisational level, we have argued that the perceived degree of feminisation is

not only determined by the relative number of women working in a certain field but also

by the gender of the most senior person. Following this line of argument we aggregate

the variables percentage of female workforce in HRM and gender of the most senior HR

person to the country level, i.e. the average percentage of female HR staff in a country

and the percentage of HR departments led by female directors per country.

Further we control for enabling social policies as one way to translate international

trends in equal opportunity into national law. The influence of enabling social policies

has been shown to influence the strategic integration of female HR managers (Brandl

et al., 2008b). We measure such policies by employing two items of the ‘welfare

intervention index’ created by Mandel and Semyonov (2006). We standardise (creating

a range from 0 to 1) and combine the number of weeks of fully paid maternity leave

and the percentage of children aged zero to six in public childcare to an index ranging

from 0 to 2.

468 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

5 Method of analysis

In our sample, the companies (especially HR directors of the companies) are nested

within the countries. Thus, the observations within one country are not independent. To

account for this hierarchical data structure, we use multilevel modelling. Hierarchical or

multilevel linear modelling is a theoretical and statistical means of combining different

levels of analysis into a single framework. Thus, it is an appropriate technique to analyse

our multilevel data. In particular, hierarchical linear modelling takes into account nested

sources of variability and the following dependency of the data (Luke, 2004). Given this

form of complex variability between companies as well as countries, wrong conclusions

are likely to be drawn if these different sources of variability are not adequately

considered; e.g. in an OLS regression this cannot be taken into account (Sjöberg, 2004).

Hierarchical linear modelling is usually carried out in multiple steps (e.g. Luke, 2004;

Sjöberg, 2004; Snijders and Bosker, 1999). Deviance and the Aikaike Information

Criterion (AIC) are measures for unexplained variance. They should therefore decrease

with the addition of relevant variables in every step. The difference between the deviance

(–2 log likelihood) of two models is distributed as a chi-square statistic with degrees of

freedom equal to the difference in the number of parameters estimated in the two

respective models. This allows us to calculate a level of significance. AIC directly shows

if the model fit has been increased by the addition of variables to the model because

unlike deviance, it is corrected for the number of variables and hence does not

necessarily decrease with the addition of further predictors (Luke, 2004).

In our case, we construct four random intercept models adding variables with every

step. We assume different levels of independent variables in different countries but

similar types of relationships between independent and dependent variables in the

respective countries. Thus, we use random intercept models which allow the regression

lines of the higher level units (i.e. countries) to have different intercepts but force them to

have the same slopes (Luke, 2004).

6 Results

Table 1 displays the country-level variables and the number of companies in

each country used for the hierarchical linear regression. The sample size adds up to

1508 companies in 17 countries. Enabling social policies are highest in Sweden followed

by Denmark, France, Finland and Hungary. Australia, Switzerland and the USA are on

the other end of their scale with very low levels of such social policies. Internationally,

HRM on the staff level is dominated by women. In each of the 17 countries more than

half of the employees working in HRM are women. In 11 countries the percentage of

women working in HRM in an average organisation is over 70%. On the HR director

level, we find different results. There are only four countries in which more than 50% of

all HR directors are women: Australia, Hungary, the UK and the USA. Besides the

relatively high percentage of female HR directors, they are also characterised by high

proportions of women on the staff level (around 80%).

Departmental status: the case of HRM 469

Table 1

Descriptive statistics – country level


Enabling social


Average percentage

of female HR staff

Percentage of female

HR directors

Number of


Australia .35 77.30 55.20 107

Austria .73 67.44 21.10 81

Belgium 1.26 65.80 26.50 93

Czech Republic 1.19 72.23 35.90 31

Denmark 1.68 74.15 37.80 97

Finland 1.32 74.80 39.60 53

France 1.33 73.93 31.10 70

Germany .88 65.79 21.10 104

Hungary 1.32 84.32 64.30 26

Israel 1.17 72.11 32.80 33

Italy 1.21 59.86 9.30 24

Spain 1.08 55.52 14.00 49

Sweden 1.86 70.26 43.20 98

Switzerland .44 72.71 32.60 92

The Netherlands .99 66.85 38.20 101

UK .63 79.76 58.80 390

USA .46 80.69 50.60 59

Table 2 contains means and standard deviations of as well as correlations between all

company-level variables. For the correlation matrix, the whole sample was used – not

addressing the nested structure of the sample. The status of HRM is generally rather high

with a mean of 1.31 on a scale ranging from 0 to 2. The average HR department is rather

small. It is 1.6% of the company size which on average is 1076 employees. Almost 38%

of the employees are female but because of the high number of female employees in

HRM (mean 72.75%), the mean difference between female staff in HRM and in the

whole company is almost 40%. Mean HRM experience among HR directors reaches

almost 14 years. The mean for education is .720 which indicates that by far more

than half of the HR directors hold an academic degree (coded as ‘1’, no academic

education = ‘0’). The mean of the binary variable gender of the HR director lies

below .50. Since one indicates a female HR director and zero a male one, this number

shows that female HR directors are outnumbered by male ones. As we have already seen

from Table 1, the opposite is true for the percentage of women on the staff level. Almost

three quarters are women.


470 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

Table 2

Correlations – company level

Variable Mean SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

1. Status HR department 1.31 .694

2. Company size 1076 3393 .051**

3. Relative size of HR department 1.60 4.90 –.011 –.036

4. Percentage of female workforce 37.74 30.61 –.020 –.030 .119***

5. Difference % of female workforce

in HR department and company

39.50 29.95 –.087*** –.066** .028 .076***

6. Experience HR director 13.94 8.64 .107*** .128*** –.016 –.030 –.082***

7. Education HR director .720 .445 .137*** .048** .020 .026 –.046* .011

8. Sex of HR director .411 .492 –.127*** –.057** –.009 .105*** .317*** –.212*** –.098***

9. % of female workforce in HR


72.75 24.22 –.136***

–.084*** –.085*** .188*** .413*** –.123*** –.078*** .616***

Note: n = 1508.

* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.

Departmental status: the case of HRM 471

As outlined above, hierarchical linear modelling is usually carried out in multiple steps.

The null model (model 1) informs about unexplained variance and it reveals that there is

significant unexplained variance on the company (Wald z = 37.070, p < .001) as well as

the country level (Wald z = 3.48, p < .05). The Intercorrelation Coefficient (ICC) for

the intercept only model is .139, showing that country accounts for almost 14% of

the variability in the data.

The addition of company-level control variables and functional attributes in model 2

produces a highly significant decrease in deviance compared to the intercept only model.

Thus, the amount of explained variance rises with the inclusion of company-level control

variables and functional attributes. In particular, education and experience show a highly

significant influence on the status of HR directors. The more experience and the better

the education, the higher the status of HRM. Accordingly, hypotheses 2a and 2b are

supported. The difference between the percentage of women in HRM and the company

exerts a significantly negative influence on the status of HRM. Both the total number of

employees and the percentage of women in the company have no effects.

Entering the measures of gender composition, gender of the HR director and the

percentage of female HR staff to form model 3 further increases variance explained to a

highly significant extent. However, compared to the variance explained by experience

and education this increase is small. Entering variables experience and education in a

separate step after the control variables decreases deviance from 4578.226 to 3879.103

[Chi 2 = 699.123 (df = 2), p < .001], which is a much higher value than the difference in

deviance [Chi 2 = 24.188 (df = 2), p < .001] that results from entering the variables of

gender composition. Comparing the two differences in deviance that result from entering

functional attributes and gender composition leads to 699.123–24.188 = 674.935,

which is also a Chi 2 value and highly significant. Thus, functional attributes add more

to the explanation of variability in status than gender composition does. H3, hence, is

supported. The gender of the HR director has a weakly significant negative influence on

status suggesting that a female HR director negatively influences the status of HRM in

the company. The percentage of female employees in HRM also has a negative effect

on status but this relationship is not significant. Accordingly H1b is supported while

H1a is not.

Entering the country-level control variables to build model 4 leads to a highly

significant decrease in deviance of the overall model and also to a considerable effect on

ICC that is concerned with the variability between countries. Enabling social policies

have a very strong, highly significant effect on the status of HRM. Both variables of

proportion of women on the country level show negative effects on the status of HRM;

however these relationships are not significant.

The final model reveals significant influence of education and experience as well as

gender of the HR director on the status of HRM. Enabling social policies on the country

level also have a strong positive effect on the organisational status of HRM.

472 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

Table 3

Hierarchical linear regression

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4

Intercept 1.31 (.050)*** 1.10 (.067)*** 1.14 (.092)*** 1.38 (.720)

Control variables and functional attributes

Company size .000 (.000) .000 (.000) .000 (.000)

Relative size of HR department .083 (.355) –.096 (.361) –.040 (.375)

Proportion of women in workforce .000 (.001) .000 (.001) .000 (.001)

Difference between proportion of women in HR department and in company –.002 (.001)** –.001 (.0005)+ –.001 (.001)+

Experience .009 (.002)*** .008 (.002)*** .009 (.002)***

Education .213 (.033)*** .208 (.033)*** .212 (.035)***

Gender composition

Sex of HR director –.069 (.038)+ –.097 (.042)*

Proportion of women in HR department –.001 (.001) –.001 (.001)

Country effects

Enabling social policies .354 (.089)**

Proportion of female workforce in HRM –.007 (.012)

Proportion of HR departments led by women –.001 (.006)

Deviance 5559.473 3879.103 3854.915 3205.406

AIC 5565.473

3897.103 3876.915 3233.406

Difference in deviance 1680.370*** (df = 6) 24.188*** (df = 2) 649.509*** (df = 3)

ICC .139

.147 .147 .044

Variability between companies .422 (.011) .396 (.013) .394 (.013) .400 (.014)

Variability between countries .068 (.020) .068 (.020) .068 (.020) .018 (.009)

Note: + p < .10, * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.

Departmental status: the case of HRM 473

7 Summary and discussion

Based on various streams of literature and basic perspectives on the role of gender as a

core category when analysing organisations, this paper has basically taken the position

that gender composition still plays an important role when looking at outcome variables

at the organisational level; however, other factors such as functional attributes, e.g.

experience, education, increasingly play a major role when looking at the organisational

effects of gender composition. Beyond the level of the organisation, country-specific

elements of the institutional environment, such as social policies supporting women in

their efforts to handle work/non-work conflicts or the availability of role models and the

existence of a general acceptance of women as an integral part of work life as expressed

in the workforce participation rates of women, are important.

The analyses support a number of core elements of these arguments. Gender of the

most senior HR person has a significant influence on the status of the HR department.

The composition of the workforce on the HR staff level, however, does not affect the

status. Education and experience of the HR director have a highly significant impact

on the organisational status of the HR department. These functional attributes in fact

contribute to explaining the variability in status to a significantly higher extent than

variables of gender composition.

Expanding on previous research, this paper focuses on the status of the HR function

as a crucial outcome variable and, thus, on the organisational level. The insight gained

from the analyses of the influencing factors on HR status contributes to the debate within

HR about the role of the HR function and, implicitly always encased in that, the

importance of HR within the interplay of various organisational functions. The results

of the paper indicate that looking at the role of HR without taking into account the sex of

the top HR person as well as key functional characteristics such as experience

and education is incomplete. Beyond the more strategic considerations about the

basic assumptions on managing organisations, e.g. the type of products and services

the organisation produces and the respective production processes or the age and

qualification characteristics of the workforce employed as well as the labour market

situation, that traditionally are used to explain the various roles of HR, the variables

analysed in this paper add to this picture. In essence, attributes ascribed to the HR

function via the HR director seem to play an important role when explaining the status of

the HR department. Both the gender of the HR director as a more value laden category

which still plays an important role as well as experience and education as functional

attributes influence the status of the HR function. This leads to the conclusion that only

through the interplay of manifest functional attributes and variables effective at the more

latent level such as gender and the attributes linked with that does one get a more

comprehensive picture. In turn, these point towards micro-political and maybe even

unconscious processes that are at work here, strengthening a view of organisations that

goes beyond the rational and more mechanistic perspective of organisations.

In terms of the more fundamental views about the role and importance of gender as

a core category for analysing organisational processes, the results of this paper support

a bridging position between the rather one-dimensional views of seeing feminisation

automatically leading to a downgrading of the respective profession or organisational

unit on the one side and, on the other side, the view that gender loses explanatory power.

The results underscore the importance of both taking into account the effects of gender

474 A. Reichel, J. Brandl and W. Mayrhofer

of key decision-makers at the organisational level when looking at the status of an

organisational unit and going beyond it, i.e. other attributes of these decision-makers as

well as organisational and contextual variables. This points towards the necessity of

multilevel analyses when trying to gain a comprehensive picture of influencing factors in

an organisational unit’s status.


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