Why Do We Need Affinity Groups?

Posted on April 12, 2016

I am often asked why we need affinity groups. Why is there a Women in Technology group when we don’t have a Men in Technology group? Why is there BOLDforce when we don’t have Whiteforce? Why is there a Lesbians Who Tech Summit and not a Straight People Who Tech Summit?

If you’ve never needed an affinity group, I can see how it’s a bit mysterious. Thing is, if you’ve never needed an affinity group, it’s probably because you belong to the dominant group. That’s a good thing – trust me. You aren’t missing out. Being part of a marginalized group isn’t as fun as it seems (ok, I admit, sometimes it is).

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Photo credit: Lesbians Who Tech

Why do I join?

I join women’s groups or lesbian groups to refuel so I can go back out into the dominant group and be awesome. Sometimes these groups or their events are “exclusive” – meaning that only people who identify as members of the group (women or lesbians, in this example), are invited. That’s not to be mean. It’s to create a safe space. If members of the dominant group are in that space, then it is no longer safe. That doesn’t mean that the dominant group is bad or violent, and it doesn’t mean we sit around saying negative things about the dominant group…that’s not the focus! We’re sitting around saying positive things about each other, to build each other up. We’re working through micro-aggressions we’ve experienced, imposter syndrome, and helping each other with our careers. Although sometimes we just browse GIPHY, because why not, right?

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Photo credit: #WOCinTech Chat

The point is, we’re in a space where we don’t worry about being judged, or interrupted, or hurting anyone’s feelings (Google ‘white fragility’ or ‘male fragility’ to see what I mean). It’s a good thing.

But what about allies?

Some groups or events are for refueling. Others are for strategizing with allies (aka accomplices). It’s important to know the difference. Here is a quick quiz (answers at the end of the post).

Question 1Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.31.58 PM

A. This is a safe space event. I shouldn’t go if I don’t identify as a woman, trans man, or genderqueer.

B. This is an accomplices-welcome event. I should go if I support women, trans men, or genderqueer folks.

C. I like coding so I’m going to go to this event, I don’t care if I’m invited.

Question 2

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.39.05 PM

A. This is a safe space event. I shouldn’t go if I don’t identify as a lesbian.

B. This is an accomplices-welcome event. I should go if I’m willing to hire, finance, create opps, and share resources to support queer women.

C. I like tech so I’m going to go to this event, I don’t care if I’m invited.

Question 3

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A. This is a safe space event. I shouldn’t go if I don’t identify as a white person.

B. This is an accomplices-welcome event. I should go if I’m interested in a more just society.

C. I like liberation from racism, so I’m going to go to this event, I don’t care if I’m invited.

What would a Change Agent do?

When I join an affinity group as an accomplice, I do it to meet other change agents. We talk about ways our sub-groups can work together to make our workplaces or community more inclusive, so everyone will have less refueling to do. One of the common things people say at women’s conferences is, “I hope someday that we don’t need women’s conferences.” That’s to say that someday we will achieve equality and equity. Until that time, we still need women’s conferences and all of the affinity groups and events, sometimes to refuel and sometimes to strategize.

If you are truly a change agent who strives for inclusion, you will ask, “Which type of group is this?” and accept the answer with grace.


Answer #1: A (excerpt from Women Who Code meetup)

Answer #2: B (excerpt from Lesbians Who Tech Summit website)

Answer #3: A (excerpt from European Dissent Facebook page (HT to Dan Zanes)

Note: If you answered C to any of these questions, no judgement from me because I used to behave that way…but really, don’t do it.


3 Replies to "Why Do We Need Affinity Groups?"

  • Stuart
    April 15, 2016 (1:25 am)

    Gotta be transparent here and didn’t quite get 100% on your quiz. So if I am an ally / accomplice or a “wanna-be” accomplice, the best advice is to ask the leader if I can/should attend?

    There maybe those who don’t know yet what it is to be an ally, but are interested in learning, yes?

    • Mary Scotton
      April 15, 2016 (6:37 pm)

      Hi Stuart!

      Yes, when I’m not sure (and that happens a lot), I ask the leader. That’s what I did for WIT Diversity. I sent Shonnah and Toya a note saying, “Hey it’s great that you are starting this group. I didn’t join because I’m not a woman of color, but let me know how I can support you.” They clarified that the group was open to allies, and then I joined.

      I think that groups that are open to allies would also be open to folks who are interested in supporting/contributing but don’t know quite how. Best advice there is to do a lot of googling/reading on your own and not expect the group to do all the educating. Spend more time listening than talking when you are at a meetup or event. And finally, ask how you can best be an ally – is it spreading the word about job opportunities, or raising awareness at work through leading workshops or small discussions, or raising the visibility of work the group is doing, etc.

      Thanks for always being a #WDIMC. 🙂

  • Brandy Colmer
    April 16, 2016 (1:48 am)

    Great article, Mary. Thank you for leading the conversation on this, I really appreciate it.