Dear White HR Ladies, We Need To Talk: How a Homogenous Profession Has shaped our workplaces, and what we need to do about it

Katie Augsburger Culture, Current Affairs, Diversity, Employee Relations, Organizational Development 13 Comments

I woke up Tuesday to yet another trending news story about a white woman calling the police on an innocent black man. This time, Amy Cooper, a white professional New York resident was violating the dog leash rules for a popular birding spot in Central Park, when an avid bird watcher, approached. Christian Cooper (no relation) asked Amy to leash her dog, and that is when the familiar scene unfolded.

In the video, the woman repeatedly threatens to call the police before finally doing so. But it was what she said in her threat that made this video feel so different from the many others we have seen before. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Those words landed on many of us like a heavyweight punch to the chest. Christian Cooper was not at all threatening her life, in fact, he repeatedly asks her to give him space. Yet as a viewer, you know just how impactful her accusation was, and so did she.

Even in the year of our lord 2020, I was/am astounded that a woman would make such a threat knowing exactly what could happen to a black man in the hands of the police. But that was why her threat was so effective. That is why, I suspect, she so quickly pulled it out of her arsenal. Amy Cooper was confident she would be believed, she would be comforted by the police who would assume her, not him, to be the victim. Her white womanhood absolved her of any blame or wrongdoing, even while she casually choked her dog while making the call. Amy knew that the most powerful tool at her disposal at that moment was her whiteness.

When these videos go viral, many of us are left thinking “what is wrong with these women?” We cheer and feel a sense of justice when inevitably those women get their comeuppance. We feel justified when they have to go on their apology tour. What is stark about these videos is not only how unfortunately formulaic they can be, but also how justified and righteous the women appear to be.

Of course, not all white women behave this way, not even most. But we must address the truth that white women are the perpetrators in these videos and that these are only the cases that happen to be recorded. When women like Amy Cooper are not calling the police at Central Park, they are wielding that powerful tool of whiteness, in other areas of their lives. Often that power is wielded where they feel most powerful, work.

So White HR Ladies, this brings me to you.

The HR profession is predominantly white and overwhelmingly female. Just to be clear, I do not mean just a little white and a little bit female, I mean, 71% of HR professionals are women, and over 66% white. The most baffling thing about the homogenous nature of our profession is that it is almost never discussed. It’s not a mainstage topic at HR conferences, it doesn’t grace the cover of HR magazines and I have yet to see #HRSoWhite trending on Twitter. It is both the known and not acknowledged truth of our profession.

We don’t discuss it, in fact, we actively avoid the conversation about HR’s demographics. The topic makes some of us uncomfortable and defensive, and other of us feel traumatized and potentially ostracized for flagging concern. I believe we avoid talking about the prevalence of white women in HR, because it means having to discuss the uncomfortable role white women play in maintaining a racist social structure.

The Guardians of the White Galaxy

White men and women have played very different yet critical roles in maintaining racism. White women are often depicted as powerless partners to racist husbands and fathers. These husbands and fathers use their white male privilege to enact rules, often violent ones, that are intended to control the behavior of brown and black folks. But those men are not alone in maintaining the system of racism. The women by their side helped to enforce those rules. Many white women believe, either consciously or not, that it is their role to ensure white spaces are protected. That it is black and brown people’s responsibility to comply with the rules (even if they are not laws), and when there is an infraction, that the proper authorities are notified.

The truth is, HR is filled with tens of thousands of women just like Amy Cooper, who are deciding which employees are deserving of a raise, which candidates “just don’t seem like a culture fit” and which employees “making them uncomfortable.” Certainly, HR does not make these decisions in isolation, but HR is critical in gatekeeping and rule enforcement.

White women’s dominance in Human Resources sets the tone, feel, and direction of not only the profession but the organizations it serves. However the sheer demographic domination does play a role in how HR is experienced in our organization, specifically with staff of color. And homogeny of the profession becomes very problematic and concerning when you factor in that some white women are using their racial privilege coupled with their positional power, to create harm.

The consequence however is not an uncomfortable viral video, but lost jobs, forgone promotions, and stalled careers. The HR version of #BBQBecky or #PermitPatty (the trending hashtag that follows these viral videos) is an over-reliance on policies over compassion. It is the threat of termination or demotion rather than calling the cops. For many, HR is just another example of white women upholding the rules white men have created for their organization, and policing the behavior of people of color.

We can be a better profession

HR’s role as the company police and watchdog feels like a foregone conclusion, but it certainly does not have to be that way. We do not have to be the police of our organizations. We can create policies and practices that center the needs of our most marginalized employees. We can be both a trusted resource for employees and a helpful and practical resource for the organization. The choice is not binary.

It also can be a gift to have a profession so filled with women. Centering the feminine traits in the design of work only helps to elevate values such as collaboration, connection, joy and communication. We should push into these values and amplify them at every opportunity. However, there is no benefit for a racially homogenous profession.

The way forward is multi-racial

We must make efforts to bring in students of color into the HR profession. We need to show this is a viable career option for all identities. We need to listen to black and brown HR professionals and look for ways to incorporate their wisdom into our collective practice. We need to prioritize diversifying HR. I don’t mean that in a lip-service way. You need to look around your HR teams and say to yourself, who are we missing, what are our blind spots, and start making changes with your next hire. We need all the amazing, compassionate, forward-thinking white women in HR, to hold themselves and their white sisters accountable.

We need black and brown voices to be speaking at major events about topics outside of just diversity. Every panel conversation, whether it is compensation, performance reviews or hiring must have space for black and brown voices. We need white women to share the stage with HR professionals of color.

And with this added wisdom, we need to deeply reexamine our role as rule enforcers, compliance advocates, policy pushers. We need to refocus on what really draws people to our profession, the people. HR is at it’s best when we are champions for employees.

We can be the profession that leads the future of work.

Comments 13

  1. It seems this is an article written from a soap box about equality in race, while promoting white women in HR. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, similar to the video posted online.

  2. Why no call for better gender representation in HR? Based on your stats, men are the more under represented group in the profession?

    1. This is always very conveniently ignored. The gender part of the equation despite highlighting at the start of the article is conspicously left unattended. When I shared the Amy Cooper incident post on my Facebook with just one question “Always believe the woman?” I was lamblasted by some crazed freak from my friend list about sexist remarks and “In this time when we are all looking to address racism your sexist remarks are uncalled for” And Im like “Who is we? Who are these self-righteous self declared arbitrers of what will be the social agenda for everyone?” The Amy Cooper incident also highlights very clearly whether we should always take a woman’s word at face value simply because she is a woman. Because remember “Always believe the woman” sounds like a very noble empowering, “feminism” statement till you realize it literally translates to “Never ever believe the man”. If we had said the same for Amy Cooper’s victim, where would he be today?

  3. Gender, disability, neurocognitive, veterans under representation is incredibly high in our space. Yet, we run “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs. At my former Fortune 100 company. I was the sole male, veteran in global human resources team of 600 people. Imagine how fun it was to listen to pregnancy, family and female oriented stuff and never be able to communicate because of the lack of inclusion.

    Oh, we should also talk about gender pay equity. When HR isn’t a profit, loss, or revenue center. Companies pay more where revenue is made. Very simple.

  4. This speaks to many HR issues I have experienced in my lifetime. Thank you for writing this provocative piece.

  5. This article exposes a lot. As a seasoned HR professional who is African American, I see it all too well as women of color get overlooked for positions that they are very qualified for. But there is this mentality that “we” are not qualified enough to run companies.

  6. When I wanted to start in HR, all managers were male and admin staff were female. A dozen years later as a vet and new MBA, I went into big corporation HR – still mostly male and a fair number of veterans in management roles. Within a few years black men entered – usually via ‘top school’ hiring programs and often into EEO related roles – most paid much more highly than white women in the field as well as the few black women, These men disappeared over time with only a few successful ones moving into other HR functions. By the late 1980s women were more prevalent in most HR operations, although there were still a lot of men in the most senior roles. And there were a fair number of black women in HR too. But very few other minorities anywhere along the way. Here in Metro DC we have a more mixed group of women in HR in the last few decades including white, black, Asian, Latina and veterans. Some men too, especially in Talent Acquisition. But not many millennial men. Maybe if we stopped working for CEOs who wanted HR to be the police? Interesting thought piece – what will the 2020s bring?

  7. I wanna write a book about a pack of wolves but what should the story be
    about? Any ideas? probably about the pack of wolves you want to write about

  8. Shall we focus on people’s qualities and interests please, instead of one specific physical property? Stop the privilege bullshit and judge and appreciate each individual, instead of trying to force ‘equality’ using identity politics. Your story in itself is racist and increases polarization.

  9. @Mark what an interesting statement! It would have been wonderful to live in such a world… People would be judge by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Unfortunately, we are far from this reality. There is a LOT of work to archive this goal. This story is my story and other people’s story. You don’t want to hear it, it’s on you! Equality and Equity for ALL.

    Thank you so much Kathie for this enlightening and relevant article! I’m an HR professional and have been confronted with all what you explained well in your article. HR need to walk the talk!

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