HR – Voice of a Woman?

Posted: June 10, 2013 by Ian Gee in Human Resources, OD, Organization

By Ian Gee

As part of our research into the relationship between HR and entrepreneurs, Dee Ortner and I have just completed the analysis of our survey of HR professionals about their experiences of working in the entrepreneurial/startup space. One of our survey respondents said, ‘When entrepreneurs realise they have a need for HR, they tend to seek out a perky admin assistant and give them the job.’  This made me stop and think. It wasn’t the fact that an HR person might come to the profession via an administrative role that caught my eye, as many of us have trodden that path in the early stages of our HR careers. It was more the word ‘perky’ that stopped me in my tracks. I wondered, would an entrepreneur seek out a ‘perky lawyer’ or ‘perky accountant’ when the need for those types of services arose?

I decided to look up definitions of the word perky. Wiktionary defines perky as being ‘lively and enthusiastic’ and gives this example ‘She answered with a perky smile and bounced off’. In my searching of the web I came across something called ‘The Baby Name Guesser’. This provided the following information about Perky:

“It’s a Girl! – Based on popular usage it is 2.226 times more common for Perky to be a girl’s name. The popularity of Perky is 5.054 – where 0 is extremely rare and 6 is supper popular!”

I think that we can take our survey respondents use of the word ‘perky’ to be a stereotype for a certain kind of young woman as opposed to young man. I am sure perky young men exist in the workplace and HR; I have met a few in my time as no doubt so have you! I also make no judgment at all about whether perkiness is good or bad. Perky people are certainly more fun to be around than their opposite numbers; people who are depressed or gloomy. I am sure we have all met far too many people in organisations, male or female like that! What I am interested in is the implications of perkiness as an active stereotype of HR professionals.

I define a stereotype as an oversimplified way of thinking about individuals, behaviours or ways of doing things. Stereotypes are not always accurate but they do have the power to influence the way we respond or react to people and situations. Once they are active in the world they tend to spread and get a life of their own. They are very hard to challenge and can prove to be a huge hindrance to adult-to-adult dialogue, derailing the possibility of true engagement and development. We all of us hold stereotypes and I am sure we can think of countless examples of when they have got in the way of our doing good work and making good decisions. It’s hard to challenge them within ourselves and within others. However unless we can test and challenge them it’s all but impossible meet reality face on and deal with what is real authentic and true.

I believe that the stereotype of the perky HR person has big implications for the practice of HR and also how seriously HR is taken by businesses. If we accept that the stereotype of perkiness is female then it is not too much of a leap to say that HR is heard by business leaders as having a woman’s voice, regardless of the gender of the speaker. As we all know women’s voices, in the world of business, despite many years of diversity training, education and in some countries positive action, are still not accorded the status they deserve.   HR professionals have spent many years striving to be at the ‘top table’ as equals and not just to serve the tea! I am sure many of us have been to workshops, read books and articles about HR’s journey towards business partnership and the struggle this entails. What I have never read anything about is the notion of HR having a women’s voice, regardless of the gender of the speaker and this being part of the reason why HR so often struggles to gets its voice heard and be taken seriously by business leaders. I don’t believe that being perky is a credible attribute in the world of business, when tough decisions need to be made.

If this is the case then the critical question is what does HR need to do to challenge and break the stereotype? Dee and I will be exploring this, in relation to the entrepreneurial space, in a series of articles to be published later this year. But in the meantime it would be great to know what you think. Does HR speak with a women’s voice and if so what are the implications of this? Please join in the discussion.

Our research into the relationship between HR and entrepreneurs/startups continues. We are now conducting a survey with Entrepreneurs/startups as to their views of HR. The purpose of the survey is to better understand their needs and their understanding and use of HR. It would be great if you could share the survey with any entrepreneurs/startups you know and encourage them to complete it. The survey ( of 11 questions takes no more than 4-5 minutes.

My friend Tim Gorree has offered an innovative bit of help with our research. He is launching a ‘Mission’ on Empire Avenue ( on Tuesday 11th June to see how many entrepreneurs he can get to complete the survey. We will be using a different URL for this survey as it will be interesting to see both how many we get and if the responses differ markedly from the more traditional ways we are using to get the survey out. I will keep you posted.

Again many thanks in advance for both your comments and support.


  1. Phil C says:

    Wow Ian as always an amazing insight into the world of HR and it’s relationship with business and Entrepreneurs. I was thinking as I read your piece on perky and stereotypes and wondering about the profile of the people answering your survey. What proportion of them are male versus female? Would a female use the word perky? What is their age profile? What type of person would pick out and use the word perky? You can probably see where I am leading…… Here’s my hypothesis – a high majority of those people filling out your survey / Entrepreneurs are male and when responding to the question about what type of HR person do they look for then they have a stereotype of a female and also perhaps to offset themselves. The word perky to me in this context probably means self starter, can hold their own in most situations and present a positive face on the business. In summary, a positive spin. All my interpretation and analysis of the underlying assumptions which may be way off course!!!

    • Tine H says:

      To sit at the business table, HR needs to be more “business-like”, less perky and less of a woman’s voice? You may also argue that HR should stand up for these values, bring in more humanity, aiming to disrupt and challenge traditional “business” approaches. 2 + 2 = 5…

      • Fialka says:

        I would agree that you can be both ‘perky’ (or whatever other traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities) and be taken seriously, even at the top table. Sometimes I feel that women themselves don’t have confidence in this, and in general put on more of a facade than men at work in order to be taken seriously – or else constantly play themselves down.

        Instead, if you stick with your confidence in your professional expertise, and don’t undermine yourself (e.g. by belittling your thoughts & opinions, apologising for everything etc…) then you can be upbeat and even light-hearted, while still being listened to and respected. This happens at my workplace, even though it’s a fairly traditional and male-dominated industry.

        Once people see that you know your stuff and deliver results, you can let the rest of your personality shine through, whether perky or whatever else, male or female. But people will only see that if you believe in it yourself and show it!

        Finally, also agree with Phil C: perky can mean a positive self-starter who you can depend on to get things done!

    • Dee Ortner says:

      Hi Phil,
      Great questions. I wrote a lengthy reply and forgot to sign-in before trying to post, so all was lost. You can understand why Ian is the blogger and I am not. Here’s the shorter version:

      the respondent, who referred to the perky, proactive admin assistant elevated to HR manager in the start-up, is male with 11-15 years of HR experience and lives in the USA. He did not assign a sex to the perky person in his writing, yet I did get the feeling he was referring to a female.

      We did not profile our respondents by age/sex/ethnicity/etc, but rather opted to ask for years of HR experience, where they practiced and the types of HR services they offered or provided… Some interesting findings which we are planning to look at more closely.

      Finally, our survey of entrepreneurs /start-ups has begun. It will be a few weeks before we close the survey, yet I can tell you that the entrepreneurs are having difficulty finding the right HR folks. Stay tuned; Ian will be posting more in the coming weeks.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. sleppane says:

    I think in many cases young HR ladies are seen as “happy helpers” i.e. next to assistants who promise to do whatever it takes to make it happen… Sometimes referred to as Can Do attitude… 😉
    Serving your managers and business counterparts is a must but sometimes it would be better to say no based on your judgement and experience. These are the cases where perky isn’t quite enough but rather voice of reason from seasoned professional. I wonder will perky types stay perky or does it happen that during the years experience starts to show in more professional behaviour.

    However a part of me wishes we would never lose the perkiness and replace it with depression and gloominess…. After all there is room for enthusiasm, customer orientation and Can Do attitude…

  3. The issue of the HR-perky-woman stereotype is surely worthy of the inestimable Gloria Ramsbottom-Lemieux (Global Postmodern HR blog).

  4. Kais says:

    Yet to meet Perky or Pinky for that matter in high powered HR roles. The start up (men?) seem to a bit like Brad (

    • Dee Ortner says:

      Hi Kais,

      i love Pinky and Perky. Perky is on the right side as ‘he’ fits the Merriam-Webster description of the word, perky, that is ‘cocky’ and ‘jaunty’. So 1960’s in the USA , just like these two…
      Thanks! Dee

    • Ian Gee says:

      Love it Kais, brings back childhood memories! Now all we need is a visit by Sharri Lewis and Lamb Chop to liven up the blog!

  5. Great article to get us thinking about the stereotyping of HR. I am a woman who you could say works in the broader HR realm (organisation and change consultancy) and I am trying to figure out how I feel about the term “perky”. I find myself wanting to know more about the person that used it before I can a definitive judgment for some reason.

    But what I find very interesting is the topic of HR being seen as a “woman’s voice”. Perhaps if we changed the “woman’s voice” to the “feminine voice” it might be more accurate as we do have many men working in HR and the feminine voice can be present in the man as well as the woman. When I refer to feminine here, I am referring to the qualities normally associated with the feminine gender such as nurturing, caring, focus on relationships and care for the well being of people in their charge.
    I feel, however rightly or wrongly, that there can be a tension in the workplace for HR professionals to be either business like or feminine, as if the two were polar opposites or that they can’t exist in the same room happily. I also fear that the feminine too often gets overpowered by single-minded, and I would say short-sighted, business focus.

    Yet, when I study or work with businesses that are exceptional and successful, I find that both HR and other disciplines both embrace and respect the business focus and the feminine voice equally. They are not mutually exclusive but rather work hand in hand to create flexible, innovative, learning and engaged workforces that drive up the productivity and profitability of the organisation the work for.

    Businesses need the woman’s voice, or the feminine voice in order to have sustained success and that voice can be as focused on business success as any other voice. It is great to get a discussion on this topic going to see if we can get more recognition for it.
    If anyone wants a great read on this topic, I can highly recommend Joyce K. Fletcher’s “Disappearing Acts, Gender, Power and Relational Practice at Work”.

  6. Ian, I think you are right about HR being female, and about ‘perky’ being female. I would say it’s also a young female, which breaches equality guidelines. It’s like your other article ‘making the soft hard’ – Human relations seen as female, soft, in the stereotypical view. You could give examples from your experience of where ‘soft’ skills led to ‘hard’ business results- employees who really felt motivated because they were appreciated as individuals, taken care of when needed, part of a good team that achieved results. Keep the conversation going!

  7. Ian Gee says:

    Matthew found this interesting article….

  8. Tojo Eapen says:

    Hi Ian, interesting topic. Agree with you that stereotypes exist, sometimes quite strong. At the same time, as Miriam notes, businesses do need the feminine voice – which seems to be dominated by the masculine and that sometimes lead to interesting behaviorism, or inauthentic practices and behaviors. I would like to raise the question as I’m not sure about this feeling – is there’s more of this HR stereotype in the western business world than east?

  9. […] See on […]

  10. […] is perceived in general terms, not just in the entrepreneurial space.  His blog on this topic is  The discussion and comments are thoughtful and provocative, especially for someone like me who […]

  11. Christina Van de Rydt says:

    What an interesting discussion Ian. As you know I come from a different world than HR, but one of teaching adolescents for 32 years. I particularily felt that Miriam’s comments made a lot of sense about the “feminine voice.”.It also makes sense to me that since HR means Human Resources,that someone working in the field would be most effective being a “people person” who enjoys human interaction, is nurturing to a certain extent ,has empathy and wants to do right by employees and employers in a fair, non-confrontational way. Some may think that these may be “feminine” attributes more than “masculine” but then I think men who are probably successful in relationships and successful in jobs where human interaction is critical would indeed exhibit these qualities and have a “feminine” voice or side to them.(That is if we must stereotype these charactersitics at all as being feminine-perhaps this is not fair to men!) This doesn’t mean that a person in HR cannot be a sound , focused business person as well. Aren’t personalities complex? It would be awfully dull if we couldn’t exhibit different behaviours depending on what the situation warrants.
    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity, Ian. What an interesting study!

  12. mrhibbert says:

    I recognise the point, Ian – I have no doubt about the gender implication of ‘perky’, and I think it holds equally for Internal Communications, which is one of the rare places in financial services organisations where the female directors outnumber the male (long may that be so …. ).

    I think there are some real stereotypes (perhaps even archetypes?) in play here: doing battle with the world, getting meat, fighting the enemy – instrumental, therefore masculine. Tending the children, raising the the next generation, resolving tensions within the tribe – ethical, therefore feminine.

    What’s the proper response? Some do try to stress the instrumental elements of HR – managing the legal risks, for example, to make it feel more masculine. Some will make a virtue of our monopoly on the ethical, and make the ghetto their stronghold. A third stratagem that’s attractive to many of the up-and-coming generation of leaders is to ‘feminise’ the ‘instrumental’ functions of the organisation, working to infuse them all with ethical qualities (a sisyphean task, to my mind). But I doubt there’s a single true answer – feels a bit more ‘horses for courses’ to me?

    In the meantime, if we could ever properly get underneath why PAs are women, I think we might have a big piece of the puzzle solved.

  13. Lisa T. says:

    Really interesting blog post, Ian. My first emotion was anger – how sexist! After a deep breath…If entrepreneurs are looking for ‘perky’, then I do think they are likely thinking of a female. I have never heard of a man described that way. What they might actually be looking for (and a better word choice) is ‘high energy’. The HR job in a start-up generally means that you are a jack-of-all trades. Probably everything from hiring to ordering pens. A person really needs to multi-task in this job, and I believe research shows that women are generally better than men at multi-tasking (correct me if I’m wrong though, please). One of the possible lessons here is that we need to start being more careful in selecting gender-neutral words to describe the key attributes of a job.

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