How Women Can Earn a Promotion in HR

By Arlene S. Hirsch August 15, 2023

​There's no foolproof formula that HR professionals can use to advance their careers. A promotion is something they earn, regardless of gender, by building and leveraging their strengths and capabilities in ways that align with the needs and goals of the business.

But since women represent the majority of people working in HR and also historically are paid less than men, earning a promotion can be tougher for them. The key, according to a range of successful HR executives and career advisors, is for women to recognize that they are in the "business of people," and they must learn to speak the language of the business. Once they do, they can demonstrate leadership abilities and take the initiative to solve problems that improve the employee experience and enable the business to grow, which often leads to advancement opportunities.

Cultivate a Unique Value Proposition

Before she launched her women's leadership coaching practice, Kellie Thompson built a successful HR career working in a range of sales, marketing, training and management roles that included running the HR operations for a small technology firm. Thompson believes that her ability to manage change and her passion for training and development were instrumental in her success.

"I had a really strong skill for coming into organizations and creating HR programs out of nothing," said Thompson, who is the author of Closing the Confidence Gap: Boost Your Peace, Your Potential, and Your Paycheck (Amplify Publishing, 2022). "It really just boils down to authenticity, really owning that unique lens that only you can bring to the business. You have to embrace what's unique about you so that you're moving up in a way that aligns with your values."

"Women in HR often underestimate themselves," said Nakisha Hicks, president of The ElevateHer, a Tennessee-based career and leadership coaching firm that specializes in working with mid- and senior-level Black women in HR. "Sometimes it's a struggle for them to claim their distinctive strengths."

Hicks recommends that HR professionals create an individual development plan (IDP) that builds on strengths and accomplishments to help them acquire the skills and experiences they need to make an impact on the organization.

"Don't expect your employer to do it for you," Hicks cautioned. "The person you report to isn't with you day in and day out, so they may not really know what you do on a daily basis."

[SHRM company Linkage will hold its annual Women in Leadership Institute gathering Nov. 13-16 in Orlando, Fla., and virtually. Learn more.]

During her 15-month HR rotational program at Kohler Company, Robyn Geurts consistently showcased what a former mentor called her "superpower," which he defined as her "ability to talk to anybody." Geurts credits her experience in the program at the Wisconsin manufacturer with helping her understand her true capabilities and position herself within the profession.

"I learned three important things about myself in the rotational program," Geurts said. "I learned to be adaptable, to get out of my comfort zone and take risks, and I learned the importance of building relationships."

During the more than nine years that she worked for the company, Geurts held nine different positions. Notably, every one of those jobs came to her through someone she had met or worked with at Kohler. And when she decided to move to Melbourne, Fla., for personal reasons, she found her current job as a senior people business partner through a former Kohler colleague.

Charting a Path to Leadership

It is not unusual for talented women to ascend to senior-level positions in HR. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women held over 80 percent of HR management positions in 2021.

Women who aspire to leadership roles need to think about what kind of leader they want to be—and how they can infuse their values into the hard decisions they will have to make about promotions, layoffs, benefits and compensation, Thompson said. "You're going to have to get really comfortable with making impossibly difficult decisions that represent your values and also align with what the business needs."

Deciding whether to specialize is also critical. "When you start out in HR, you have to determine early on whether you want to become an expert in one area or a generalist who knows a little bit about everything," explained Susan Osgood, vice president of corporate HR at Sharp Electronics in Montvale, N.J.

Although many women choose the generalist route, Osgood found that her undergraduate education in business, aptitude for math and interest in IT made payroll and compensation a more natural starting point for her. From there, she was able to round out her HR experience by gaining experience in employee benefits, recruiting and employee relations.

In every position she has held during her 20-plus years at Sharp, Osgood added a new HR function to her skill set. That approach ultimately translated into a senior-level HR position in which she oversees all of those functions.

Understand Details of the Business

"If you want to advance in your HR career, you need to gain a strong understanding of the business that you're in," said Tara Lilien, a partner and chief talent officer at Peppercomm, a communications and marketing agency in New York City.

After majoring in public relations in college, Lilien was able to accelerate her learning curve as she built her HR career in the PR field. That decision accounts, in part, for her ability to land a director-level position at a global public relations firm only two years after launching her career as an HR associate.

Even if you don't have the benefit of an undergraduate degree that directly applies to an HR career, you can still take the initiative to learn about the business from different perspectives, said Lilien, who recommends seeking out mentors within and outside of HR, as well as building relationships with peers in other departments, such as finance and operations.

"Don't be afraid to take on additional responsibilities and take advantage of training," she said. "Volunteer for assignments outside your role, and look for opportunities to learn and collaborate."

Be a Problem-Solver

The people who really stand out to Lilien are those who can "lead with empathy" and walk the line between the needs of the business and the needs of employees. "We want HR people who can bring fresh ideas to the table," she said. 

Osgood believes that her ability to identify and solve problems in the business by improving the employee experience has been key to her advancement. While working in compensation at Sharp, she noticed that there was no corporate bonus structure to incentivize employees. Although senior leaders were initially resistant to the idea, she was eventually able to convince them to implement a companywide corporate bonus structure, which was an iterative process that took her four attempts. 

"Each time that I got an objection, I went back to the drawing board to figure out how to overcome that objection," Osgood said. "It taught me the value of patience and persistence." 

Many HR professionals are uniquely positioned to identify and solve problems on the people side of the business that benefit the organization as a whole. The HR team at Sharp, for example, recently rolled out a new performance evaluation process that includes a developmental component. 

"We want our employees to know what they need to do and learn in order to advance in their careers," Osgood said. "A lot of HR people should focus their development in the areas of technology and data analysis." 

It's important for HR managers to tell employees why they are being promoted, she advised, since it helps them understand what they did to earn the promotion and what they need to do going forward to be successful in their new role.

When to Change Jobs

If you find that your HR career has plateaued and there's no room for growth or advancement with your current employer, this may signal it's time for a change. While leaving a job can open up new experiences and opportunities, it can also be scary. "Doubt and nerves are normal. If you wait until they go away, you'll wait forever. Confidence is a side effect of taking action," Thompson said.

"The decision to change jobs can be tough for women," Hicks agreed. "Lots of women are raised to value loyalty and peace. This might make them feel guilty about thinking of leaving a job, even if it's better for their career."

As Hicks strategically climbed the corporate ladder from HR coordinator to vice president of HR, she found that she periodically needed to change jobs in order to keep advancing. For instance, while working as an assistant director of HR at a state government agency, she learned that the person she reported to wasn't planning to retire for another nine years. Since she didn't want to wait nine years to do a job that she believed she was already qualified for, she took a director-level position in a different department. Three years later, Hicks moved on to vice president of HR and Inclusion at the Nashville Symphony—and then again to start her own business.

"Your performance is your career," Hicks said. "If you are lacking something, the onus is on you to get the knowledge and experience you are lacking. But if there is no room for growth where you're at, the only way to get a promotion may be to leave the organization."

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author in Chicago.



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