Affinity groups as agents of change

Affinity networks help to drive employer policy and practice on diversity, a meeting heard.

Mature Women


Employee networks are ‘business critical’ and can help to drive wider social and organisational change and attract and retain a more diverse set of employees in companies of all sizes, an All Party Parliamentary Group on women and work heard yesterday.

In the fifth of a series of sessions on intersectionality, the APPG meeting, chaired by MP Gillian Keegan, heard from a panel of affinity network leaders – Paulette Mastin, chair of the Black Solicitors Network, Alison Field, Vice Chair of the University of Sussex’s LGBT+ Staff Network, and Samuel Okafor, Global Co-Chair of the RBS Multicultural Network.

They spoke about the way affinity groups supported different groups of underrepresented employees or those who faced particular challenges around issues such as career progression. They offered mentoring and awareness raising and held employers accountable on diversity as well as helping them address their diversity targets.

RBS, for instance, has seven different affinity networks, ranging from its rainbow network for LGBT+ employees and a family and carers network which focuses on family friendly culture and work life balance issues to RBS women which aims to attract, retain and support career development for women and its multicultural network which celebrates different cultures and raises awareness about cultural differences. 


Speakers mentioned the importance of role models, support and of getting managers to understand different groups’ experiences of the workplace. 

Mastin said that when she started her career 20 years ago there were no role models who looked like her at the law firm where she worked. Affinity networks meant people could share their experiences with those who had navigated the same path and have access to mentors and other support. She was keen to give back and had helped to grow the City arm of the Black Solicitors Network to 400 members. The BSN has 4,000 members nationwide and, among other things, it holds careers workshops, works with law firms and corporates and gives tailored advice to people who want to apply to law firms.

She added that the BSN had identified that the greatest attrition rate for black solicitors was around two to three years into their career and that more intervention was needed at this point. Mastin is also co-sponsor of Linklaters’ BAME network, and says the network has helped to significantly increase the number of black solicitors recruited to the firm and was now focusing on addressing retention issues.

Panel members were asked about how to help people in lower paid, insecure jobs. They said retention and progression was a key focus. Mastin said that it was important for senior managers and middle managers to understand the lived experience of individuals across their organisation. She added that, while senior role models for flexible working were good, it was not enough for senior managers to work flexibly if middle managers didn’t also do so.

The panel members were also asked about how to build affinity networks in SMEs. They said networks had to build from the grassroots up and respond to demand, but they didn’t need lots of members and could be virtual or linked to larger external networks.

One member of the audience spoke of the need for networks to have representation from employees from across the life stages, from apprentices to those approaching retirement. Another said there was a need for administrative support and budget for networks, particularly those for parents and carers whose members were time poor. 


There was discussion of how networks held organisations accountable, for instance, on their gender pay gap and their headline targets. Mastin said often employers gave vague targets in their action plans. Networks could pressure them to set firm numerical targets and could check progress.

She said things were moving in the right direction, but more needed to be done. Speaking on the day that detailed  ethnicity pay figures were released by the Office for National Statistics,  she stated that ethnicity pay reporting could help in a similar way to promote change, although she said the proposals on how data should be collected seemed very binary and tended to treat BAME people as homogenous groups. Okafor said networks had played a significant role in shaping internal policies at RBS, for instance, with regard to having a female on all shortlists. 

Mastin added that it made good business sense for employers to work with networks and added that she had found that they were very much appreciated by clients and potential clients as markers that they were serious about diversity.

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