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HR Diversity: What You See Is What You Are

John Zappe
Nov 2, 2011, 5:12 am ET

Look around at most any HR conference and one of the profession’s little secrets is instantly obvious: HR is the domain of white, middle-aged women.

A little harder to see is that they are better educated than most of the population, and far better off financially.

Catbert notwithstanding, human resources is a pink-collar profession that looks very different from the rest of the corporate workforce, let alone the U.S. as a whole.

More than a few surveys have noted the gender imbalance in human resources. A dozen years ago the federal Office of Personnel Management reported the dramatic change in its own workforce. In 1969, 30 percent of the HR jobs were held by women. By 1998, the percentages were reversed, with men holding 29 percent of the jobs. A SHRM survey from 2007 came up with similar numbers.

Now, one of the most extensive profiles of HR professionals ever conducted not only confirms that what the OPM found in the federal workforce applies to the private sector, but the diversity there is just what you would expect from eyeballing conference attendees.

What HR Thinks and Feels: The 2011 HRxAnalysts Psychographic Survey of HR Professionals is a collaborative effort between The Starr Conspiracy (formerly, Starr Tincup) and John Sumser’s HRExaminer. The report is available for sale at HRxAnalysts. Primarily a tool for vendors, the report offers a view of the denizens of the HR world right down to their political leanings (evenly split between liberal and conservative) and their leisure time activities.

The psychographic makeup of the profession is gold to marketers and salespeople, helping them understand their potential customers and how to better talk to them. (“Given that HR professionals are generally older than other departments, your sales folks should be experienced in the market,” is one of the many vendor tips in the report.)

For those working in the field, however, the report exposes the uncomfortable homogeneity of a profession charged with promoting diversity in the workforce, even as it celebrates the strides that women have made.  (“HR is a paragon of success for women who dominate the ranks at every level,” Sumser writes.)

The survey is not a statistically perfect profile of the profession. Survey participants tended to be from mid-sized employers, leaving the smallest and the largest companies under-represented. And some industries are either over-represented or under-represented. Yet as a look at the kind of people who populate the profession, the report manages to confirm some of the conventional wisdom, while contradicting other.

For instance, two-thirds of the profession is female; 92 percent is white; the average age is 47. On the other hand, the survey found, “While the stereotype is that only generalist experience is foundational in HR, the data suggests that a large majority of HR workers have spent time in recruiting and staffing.” The survey found 88 percent of HR professionals worked in recruiting and staffing early in their career, compared to 68 percent who spent time as generalists.

Rarest are those with experience in diversity (34 percent), executive education and development (27 percent), and labor negotiations (17 percent). Notes the report,

Diversity, for example, is a controversial practice area often seen as offering more obstacles than solutions. Given the overwhelming lack of diversity within the HR department, diversity professionals (who, as a group, are more ethnically and racially diverse than their colleagues) have a difficult trajectory in internal career paths. Given the specificity of their role, diversity experts are more likely to find career mobility by staying in the practice area and moving between companies.

One of the other unexpected findings of the survey is that 82 percent of HR workers have experience in other areas. On average, they spent eight years working in departments other than HR, with the top three being customer service (38 percent), sales (35 percent), and general management (31 percent).

“It’s worth noting,” says the report, “That these are people-oriented and extroverted practice areas. Given the amount and type of cross-functional experience, it is clear that the predominant HR personality suggests a high level of emotional intelligence.”

These details are just a sampling of what’s in the report. There are specifics about the professional certifications (48 percent have at least one), education (46 percent have at least some post grad; 16 percent hold and MBA), affluence (72 percent have a household income greater than $90,000), and longevity (15 years HR experience, on average).

Its 96 pages go well beyond the demographics of the profession, not only providing vendors a clearer picture of who will be buying and using their products, but describing the lifestyle, professional competencies, and more of a profession that touches every worker from entry-level clerk to CEO in every industry and in nearly every business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Katie McNab

    Yeah, this is clearly a woman’s game… I mean check out the awesome gender diversity on show among the keynote speakers at one of the biggest industry events.

  2. Daniel Enthoven

    Hi Katie,

    If there was a best comment of the year award, you would now be in first place.


  3. Sylvia Dahlby

    I once heard HR referred to as a “pink collar” profession because of the predominance of women in the field. How typical for women to gravitate to an industry because they “like to work with people” and get so little respect. I’m not surprised that more women than have the skills needed to stick with it either – like patience, high emotional intelligence, and attention to detail (ok I know that’s sexist, sue me). I do find the lack of diversity in the survey surprising though and would dispute that – I’ve been in this business since 1978 – mostly in urban or diverse parts of the country – and have found minorities to be well represented in HR, particularly in public sectors, gov’t contractors, and large organizations. And aren’t women still regarded as a “minority” even though we’re 51% of the population? Go figure.

  4. Keith Halperin

    @ Sylvia: Well said… minorities to be well represented in HR, particularly in public sectors, gov’t contractors, and large organizations….
    These are the folks who’ve made strong efforts to be diverse, presumably because they had to.


  5. Shannon Wagner


    I second Dan’s opinion!


  6. Latigo Twain

    My mentor advised me to steer clear of minority affairs and diversity politics. Cul de sacs of deprivation he called them. The proof, 30 years later, is in the numbers and the literature. The dysfunction is at the collegiate and preparatory levels in high schools—- special programs do not special employees make. Spare the child and leave the programs behind. Do not promote failure. Do not hire employees who cannot help a company be profitable. Period. Diversity is a joke and is never ever fostered by artificial means. The good ones among us do not take those jobs and end up creating our own enterprises and succeeding beyond any established corporate “track” for “minorities” or “diversity”. All those programs do is comply with federal skeletons from the Jim Crow era…and companies entitle themselves to wear “Not Me” buttons at the diversity conferences. What a complete waste of capital. Sorry, I’ve seen too much and know that if it walks like a duck and quacks like one- it is one. And those don’t fit into any kind of costume other than the one God put them into in the first place.

    Good Luck Everybody. The Feds are about to decide everything for you quite soon— while “minorities” fight over the remaining deck chairs on the Titanic.


  7. Daniel Enthoven


    Your mentor doesn’t sound like a very nice person. Based on what you wrote, I also suspect he isn’t a very good mentor.


  8. Latigo Twain

    Why, Dan. How judgemental of you. The man was a saint and filled with the highest form of wisdom- kindness. He overcame racial barriers in the 1950s. He marched. He bled. Enough said.

    Do you have a question you’d like to ask, the one that is sitting right behind your conclusions? It’s okay. I’ll answer it.


  9. Keith Halperin

    @ Latigo:
    Could you elaborate some more on your position?
    I’m not clear what you’re advocating.



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