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Boys' Clubs: The Invisible Affinity Groups

An affinity group is basically any association or organization that provides support to a particular demographic: women, African Americans, Latinos, people over 65, etc.

The goal of an affinity group –- an organization for female MBAs, for example — is often to help members contend with obstacles or other situations that they are more likely to face than others, to level the playing field. Such affinity groups can help cultivate talent and leadership their ranks.

Some onlookers, however, react negatively to affinity groups. Don’t affinity groups, they ask, promote exclusion? The answer is no, if they are structured properly. But that’s an article for another day.

For now, let’s get to another intriguing question: Have you ever seen an affinity group for white men? I know of  none – – on paper, that is. White male affinity groups are hardly the rage.

In fact, white men sometimes react with rage when they see affinity groups, which they view as designed for everyone but them. If you are a white man with such a sentiment, hold onto that feeling the next time someone talks to you about feeling excluded or marginalized.

Even though there are no formal white male affinity groups of which I am aware, some organizations have informal affinity groups for white men, often termed “boys’ clubs.” In the business world, the proverbial boys’ club is a powerful circle of men, usually white, whose connections and alliances help advance them within an organization or silo. An all-male board of directors or an all-male executive team may be a boys’ club. As noted below, however, numbers alone are not determinative.

How do you know if you have a boys’ club? It’s rare that you’ll find a “smoking cigar.” In most case, the club is not a creation of conscious design. Rather, it derives from an unconscious bias that remains stubbornly persistent in many parts of the corporate world. We all know that there is unknowing bias in our society. And most of us are equally certain that it does not exist in our own organizations.

The discrimination often amounts to what the EEOC refers to as a “like-me” bias. People tend to feel more comfortable with others with whom they share similarities — experiences, interests, and connections. This holds particularly true when it comes to mentoring. Leaders often mentor people who remind them of themselves in certain ways. Most white men don’t see a woman of color when they look in the mirror.

Even in organizations where men dominate in all respects, you’ll often find a sincere belief that no boys’ clubs exist. Plenty of people who drink martinis at 8 a.m. sincerely believe they don’t have an alcohol problem.

A common defense to allegations of a boys’ club is that there are women in the inner circle. But the fact that women belong doesn’t disqualify it as a boys’ club. At the danger of generalizing, the women in the club are often what I call YADs: young, attractive, and drinkers. Sometimes these women will adamantly rebut any claim that there’s a boys’ club. They may feel less certain when they find themselves excluded as they get older, are perceived as less attractive, or don’t want to keep “drinking with the guys.” Yes, alcohol is often an integral part of the boys’ club. Jack Daniels holds a membership to many.

At the same time, the fact that the governing body is predominantly male doesn’t necessarily mean that a boys’ club exists. I’ve found that many boys’ clubs live outside the governing body. Think back to high school and the “in crowd.” (If you don’t think your school had an “in crowd,” then you were in it.) The student council president often wasn’t in the “in” crowd. The same may be true of an organization’s leadership team: It could possess fair-minded, progressive officers but still have a culture dominated by a huge sales team consisting of narrow-minded jerks, for example.

You cannot conclude that a boys’ club exists, or does not exist, by numbers alone. I have seen organizations with no women in the C-suite that nonetheless pay great attention to the input of female staff members.

Informal culture plays a critical role in whether a boys’ club exists and whether invisible, but often impenetrable, barriers turn the glass ceiling into cement. For example, assume men visit strip clubs after work. They might even invite women to join them. But women understandably often feel uncomfortable at such venues and may decline to go. The Hobson’s choice: Go along and be subject to a naked woman dancing next to you or stay behind and lose out on the opportunity to connect with your peers. That’s no choice at all. Hence, a boys’ club may exist (not to mention a potential hostile work environment).

It’s important to keep in mind that boys’ clubs hurt not only those who are excluded from them. The existence of a boys’ club can have pernicious effects on an organization. As a business matter, it limits the input of the talent of those unconnected to it. As a legal matter, it may make employees more likely to question adverse actions, such as terminations of people who reside outside the boys’ club. Evidence of such can come up in legal claims against employers.

The perception that a boys’ club exists also can be used as a rationale by mediocre employees as an explanation for their own mediocrity. It may not work before a wise jury, but winning the case could still cost the employer dearly.

So what should employers do to make sure a boys’ club isn’t hindering their organizations? Following are 10 recommendations.

1. Be open to the possibility that a boys’ club exists in your organization, or in parts of your organization, even if you don’t see or feel it. I have never had labor pains, but I would not deny their existence.

2. Train your leaders on the business benefits of diversity in terms of getting and attracting the best. No company can afford to exclude any demographic group in its quest to obtain and retain the brightest employees.

3. Emphasize in legal training that you cannot prevent discrimination claims by avoiding those who are different from you. The avoidance very well may constitute the discrimination.

4. Be aware of like-me bias in decision making. In hiring and promoting, differences in experiences, perspectives, and skills should count as pluses, not minuses.

5. Be aware of like-me bias in evaluations. The question is not whether an employee would do it as you would; the question is whether his or her approach is effective, ethical, and reasonable.

6. Consider how micro-inequities, such as whom you invite to lunch, may cumulatively create macro-exclusions. “Little” things mean a lot.

7. Consider how you socialize, formally and informally. If socializing takes place only at male-centered sporting events, for example, more men than women might feel included or be invited. Remember, social inclusion is a form of business inclusion.

8. Consciously consider mentoring, even informally, those who are different from you (whoever you may be). If you don’t consciously consider mentoring across equal employment opportunity lines — for example, men mentoring women or white people mentoring people of color — then you may unconsciously mentor only your mirror image. As a white man, I find that when I mentor those who are different from me, I learn as much as I hope to impart.

9. Recognize that face time does not equal productive time. Hold all employees accountable but be reasonably flexible on the when and where. Although women and men both share child care and elder care responsibilities, women still tend to carry a heavier burden here. They may need to work at home more often than their male counterparts. Don’t make an issue of it as long as deadlines are met and employees are reasonably accessible when they need to be.

10. Listen to employees when they express feelings of exclusion. You don’t have to acknowledge unlawful bias to make changes to maximize inclusion. But to listen openly, you have to acknowledge that your organization, group, division, or leadership style is not perfect. I don’t know of any that are.

Author’s Note: This Article should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to specific factual situations.

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris in the employment, labor, benefits and immigration practice group. He is the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, a provider of employment instruction via seminars and webinars.

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