Editor's note: This story is part of a series based on HR Dive's Identity of HR 2021 Survey. Readers may view additional insights and articles or purchase the full report.
As the HR field continues to grow, businesses are calling on HR professionals to ensure their workplaces are diverse, equitable and inclusive. But as a profession, HR is fairly homogeneous. Stakeholders have pointed to an overall perceived lack of gender, race and ethnic diversity within the field.
In HR Dive's inaugural Identity of HR Survey, 419 practitioners shared information about their professional and personal backgrounds. The greater majority of respondents (76%) were female; 23% were male and 1% were non-binary. In regard to race and ethnicity, White individuals represented 62% of survey respondents; Asian individuals 17%; Black individuals 10%; Hispanic individuals 8%; and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander 1%.
HR Dive's findings echo other research. Namely, an HR platform for mid-sized companies, published a report in 2019 that found that 71% of HR professionals are female and 65% of HR professionals are White. The greater majority (76.9%) human resources workers are women and white (76.9%), according to 2020 BLS labor force statistics.
But some HR professionals report working among a largely diverse group of colleagues. Sean N. Woodroffe, the senior executive vice president and chief human resources officer at TIAA, shared with HR Dive that he has experienced a diverse representation of HR professionals throughout his career journey.
Woodroffe, born in Trinidad and Tobago, is a graduate of Shaw University, a historically Black university located in North Carolina. His career began at Merrill Lynch & Co., where he spent 18 years, most recently serving as first vice president and head of international HR, based in London. Woodroffe has since worked at several financial companies in HR leadership.
For the past three years, in his role at TIAA, he has led HR strategy and execution for the company's global workforce, including compensation and benefits, talent acquisition, organizational design and effectiveness, and inclusion and diversity. He also oversees the organization's internal communications strategy for approximately 16,500 employees.
Diverse HR teams can address a spectrum of worker experiences
"When you compare HR, as a discipline, to finance, risk, legal, IT and operations, you probably will see the greatest ethnic diversity in operations," Woodroffe said. The next most diverse profession, according to Woodroffe, is HR. In his experience, the field has included Black and Hispanic men and women, for example, Woodroffe said. He made one caveat: "I would say you see less of White males."
In the 1970s, the HR field was predominantly male, mirroring both the dominant manufacturing industry and organized labor, Jeff Kortes, an employee retention consultant, told HR Dive in a previous interview. But as employment in manufacturing began to decrease and male labor relations leaders began to retire, more opportunities opened up for women in HR with a focus on personnel management, Kortes said.
Diversity, equity and inclusion practice is an HR function, although "at some companies it might be bifurcated," Woodroffe said. The Society for Human Resource Management considers the DEI leadership function a discipline under human resource management.
In recent years, there's been recognition of how critical DEI is to business performance. A June 2020 report by ZoomInfo, a business-to-business database, found that since 2015, the number of executives with diversity and inclusion titles has more than doubled. Diversity initiatives grew out of the work of professionals who wanted affirmative action and equal opportunity laws to result in lasting workplace improvements, experts previously told HR Dive.
At most companies the senior role in DEI "is quite often held by a person of color," according to Woodroffe. His observation may be a growing trend. In response to the calls for racial justice in 2020, many companies pledged to enhance existing DEI initiatives, or create new ones. In the summer, Gallup, an analytics and advisory company, arranged a call with Black CHROs of Fortune 200 companies; "there were about close to 50 Black CHROs on that call," Woodroffe said. "It's hard for me to imagine if there was a call for CFOs, or a call for heads of IT," that there would have been as much representation, he said.
Diversity among HR leadership and staff can boost innovation in addressing issues of equity in the workplace, Woodroffe said. "When you think about the role of HR, our principal responsibility is to create, sustain and engender an environment where every associate has the opportunity to both be inspired, and to reach or exceed, ideally, their potential," Woodroffe said. From compensation practices of an organization, reward practices and career development to talent acquisition and employee relation matters, HR drives a lot of the practices that enable the equity that an organization seeks, he said.
Beginning his career in HR was serendipitous, Woodroffe said. "HR found me," he said. At Merrill Lynch, he started out in a clerical capacity but after more than five years into his career, he was asked to serve in an interim capacity in compensation, Woodroffe said. "That's how I got into HR; and then it became "my calling, in a sense," he said.
"I feel good about the [HR] practice [at TIAA]," he said. "[It's an] opportunity for me to be part of an organization that's helping others develop, helping others to grow and helping create an environment where associates are engaged," he said. "That's what has attracted me to this function." Although Woodroffe started his career in compensation, he had "the opportunity to experience different facets of the HR practice, he said, adding, "I never saw myself as aspiring to a CHRO role, I saw myself aspiring to be the best that I could at whatever role with which I was tasked."
Woodroffe is a member of TIAA's executive leadership team, which is composed of leaders from various ethnic backgrounds, he said. The firm's practices provide a "blueprint" for how companies can develop, attract and advance diverse talent into HR leadership — "HR is valued as much as any other function of the company," he said.
Throughout Woodroffe's career, he has had both mentors and sponsors at work. "I draw a distinction between mentorship and sponsorship," he said. A mentor provides guidance, "helping you shape your ideas, thoughts and perspective," Woodroffe explained. A sponsor is "emotionally committed and invested in your career and your success," and advocates for career development, he said. Research has shown that sponsorship programs can advance employers' diversity and inclusion goals, including diversifying leadership pipelines.
"Mentors are great [to have] but sponsors are essential and invaluable," Woodroffe said.