As more tech companies seek to foster diversity and inclusion in their workforces, employee resource groups (ERGs), which seek to ensure that underrepresented employees' voices are heard and their needs are met, are a key tool leveraged by many.
Recently, conversation about this seemingly innocuous topic has heated up. Some companies have decided that ERGs are outdated and are overhauling them with a "colorblind" approach: creating groups that seek to include everyone. Companies say this is an effort to include all voices, ensure buy-in from leadership and, in some cases, satisfy Millennials, who grew up in a more accepting world than the one in which ERGs got their start decades ago.
Companies are right to reconsider their approach to ERGs as the world changes. Although, as a Millennial who has led and been involved with ERGs at Intel for many years, I believe that colorblindness is not the approach to take. Instead, organizations should focus on creating and cultivating intersectional ERGs. Here's why:
1. A colorblind approach assumes people are colorblind. They aren't.
A colorblind approach assumes that we all don't have hard-wired perceptions about different groups and that people's race, gender or other parts of their identity don't have a real impact on their life experiences. Unfortunately, an ERG model within a company doesn't make for a different culture outside that company or alter the beliefs and perceptions employees bring in with them.
By doing away with groups that focus on specific parts of a person's identity, a company is doing away with a space in which people can feel truly comfortable expressing themselves. In turn, it may lose the collective voice of those ERG members and the opportunity to learn about their particular needs. Eliminating the groups may lead to the company losing these workers' energy and talents, as well.
2. 'Colorblindness' assumes that underrepresented groups will remain underrepresented.
The idea behind colorblind ERGs is that they erase lines between underrepresented populations and those in positions of power who can advocate for these groups. This approach assumes that underrepresented groups will remain underrepresented and need someone to speak for them, not that the same people who are members of an ERG might―and should―also be the members of a company's leadership team making decisions.
In the tech industry, fair representation of women and underrepresented minorities has yet to be achieved. At Intel, the company I work for, the goal is to reach full representation of women and underrepresented minorities in its U.S. workforce this year. Companies need to focus their efforts on ensuring ERG members are better represented throughout the organization.
3. It assumes ERGs aren't already inviting allies into the room.
Allies are a crucial component of ERGs. Becoming an ally for your colleague is really just creating a connection with someone who seems different from you and realizing that you can empathize with and support each other to create a better workplace experience.
Throughout my involvement in Intel ERGs, I've seen many people become allies just by being willing to listen to the stories of folks with backgrounds different from their own, hearing about challenges they've faced in the workplace and saying, "Oh, I didn't know that was a problem." ERGs can and should welcome and encourage allies to join their conversations while still being led and organized by members of the identity group they focus on.
So How Can ERGs Evolve?
Instead of pretending we don't see each other's differences, we should embrace those differences in all their complexities and shift away from using narrowly defined categories to define a person's identity. Instead of ignoring those narrowly defined categories, though, ERGs should expand upon them and find the new spaces where they intersect.
This approach doesn't always have to be focused on traditional identity labels. Instead, we can find new ways to connect people of all backgrounds: employees who are caring for an ailing parent, or those who were the first in their families to go to college and are new to the workforce. Here at Intel, we're kicking off our new Extend program, which focuses on multidimensional and multicultural ERGs that will coordinate and implement inclusive professional, community, cultural and diversity goals, as well as social awareness sessions and events. This will allow us to expand traditional ERG categories and weave them together, taking us in the direction where ERGs must go: toward belonging.
"Belonging" is the sense that you are not only accepted and included but also welcomed and understood. It's the feeling that there is space for every part of who you are. As ERGs evolve―not by turning a blind eye toward our differences but by seeking out what we have in common―this space will grow.
Kyle Egbert is a software engineer at Intel and is the president of the IGLOBE (Intel Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender Employees) and Next(Gen) Professionals Network at Intel.