Training Evolution Blog

To Affinity Groups and Beyond, by Sunny Nastase


Recently, I was sitting down with an executive at the US HQ of large and growing company, discussing Diversity and Inclusion, Implicit Bias, Mentoring (yes, always Mentoring) and the work we’ve done – and have yet to do – on full workplace equality. She reminded me of a discussion she and I had on Allies about a year ago. She was seeing some tension in her efforts around D&I, Mentoring and Employee Resource Groups (sometimes called Affinity Groups) with the role and participation with more “traditional” employees within the work of D&I. She was seeing some organizational friction with the idea of Ally engagement.

I get this! Right from the beginning in my work in supporting “otherness” and full engagement within workplaces, I observed that people felt much more comfortable and felt more productive with those of their own experience. Makes perfect sense. This is the fundamental reason that Affinity Groups form in the first place. It's their intrinsic value.

I heard this Ally Resistance in women’s workplace groups right from the beginning. The expectation was that the group was made of women – for women. The preference was for female mentors and guides. The appearance of men at events was… well… not really preferred. And in some cases, caused outright anger. After all, these guys – white, middle-aged men – were the very ones that had been “keeping us out”. Passing us over. Diminishing our input. Underpaying us. Even rating us more severely in feedback (there is data to support that all of this is true). Perhaps even dishing up sexual harassment. What right do they have to be here, at our table – listening to us at our most vulnerable, hearing us trying to problem-solve, as we looked to turn this thing around?

Well, after decades of experience, utterly surrounded by white middle-aged men my opinion is well-honed. And it’s based on these two undeniable realities: 1. They are in the vast majority, they make the decisions, they know what works so WE NEED THEM to be successful. 2. There are a healthy number of them who see the imbalance, recognize bias in themselves and others, and want to make a difference for us. THEY TRULY HAVE A PASSION TO HELP. My opinion is that these Allies have great value to us, and we should very intentionally engage them.

So let’s stop thinking about Women for a minute, and think about any “other” group. African Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ, Millennials... to name a few. Being a minority group in an otherwise majority ecosystem is difficult and the barriers are well documented. However, without fail, I have seen traditional employees’ step into the gap to change it. To break down barriers. To champion and to coach. It comes honestly, from their own insights and their ownotherness; from global travel; from their wives and partners and children; from their observations of nepotism, racism, ageism and sexism; and from awareness of their own implicit bias – they have come to realize it’s on them too – it’s a chance for them to bend the curve for the future. The ones I am talking about also want to learn and grow in appreciation for others. To hear other’s opinions. To be an Ally. Well it’s hard to be an Ally if you’re not invited in!

I know the CEO of a smaller healthcare company whose greatest source of pride is the multi-culturalism of his organization. I had lunch with a former direct report – now highly placed and utterly respected in his organization – who spoke of his “privilege” to be comfortable in every room. And positively beams when he discusses what he is doing to combat inequality. These are just a few examples.

I have been personally mentored by men throughout my career. And they’ve made me better. They’ve given me opportunities to grow and be promoted. Now they’ve not always been entirely empathetic. They’ve not always fully recognized what needed to be done. A few others have done harm. And my view is that they still lean WAAAYYY to much on the guys they know best for the plum assignments, for example. This needs to change, But they’ve been there to help and I have undoubtedly benefitted from their support and insights. I know I’m not alone because I’ve heard the stories. I’ve sat in the rooms while these traditional candidates advocate for us. I’ve seen them struggle to try to understand, sometimes to fail, but I know that we need them.

And I’ve learned so much from being an Ally myself! Attending LGBTQ events, sitting in on groups discussing the African American corporate experience, engaging with my Hispanic counterparts – all of these have made me, as an Ally, a bigger and more powerful and staunch advocate that I had been before.

So here’s my message: Whatever it is that makes you “outside”, allow yourself to be open to those who are inside. YES, seek out those who are more like you. Bind together in groups and support, advocate, champion and cherish each other. But find ways to open your Affinity group, your Mentor pool, your coffee break, your friendship and your trust to those in the traditional groups. Be the first to be uncomfortable in it. It’s where growth and improvement live.


Thank you Sunny Nastase for sharing your wisdom. We appreciate you!

Liz and the Training Evolution Team