Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) currently exist in 90% of Fortune 500 companies—a trend that recognises the enormous power that networks have to drive change in an organisation. Throughout the many industries and sectors where women remain underrepresented, female networks have a particular significance, enabling members to feel a sense of belonging and find support throughout their career journeys.
This power is amplified when members unite to identify the group’s core reason for being. Whether that reason is articulated in a specific objective (e.g. ‘We want equal female participation on our leadership team by a certain date’) or a broader-strokes mission statement (e.g. ‘We are a safe space for courageous conversations’), that articulated vision acts as a blueprint for committees and members alike, providing clarity, structure and direction for those involved in building the agenda of activities and events. It also enables participants to recognise the value they can get out of their membership and to understand where they can add value through their contributions. Perhaps, most importantly, it provides accountability for everyone involved in the network—and for the organisation that resources it.
When everywoman co-founders Karen Gill MBE and Maxine Benson MBE founded the online learning and development platform, the everywomanNetwork, they knew they wanted to build a community of ambitious women unashamedly focused on their personal and professional growth. Today, the everywomanNetwork is a library of unique resources that tens of thousands of women tap into to support their career journeys. The guiding force behind the platform was its mission statement: ‘every woman, everywhere’. Says its co-founder Maxine Benson: ‘Having that very simple, very clear and very ambitious vision statement has kept us focussed on rapidly growing our community so that all women can unlock their ambition; and on creating content that enables choice but at the same time speaks to a universal experience of being a woman in the workplace, so that the content resonates with all our members, globally, and adds meaningful value wherever they are in the world.’
So much more than a pithy slogan, allocating a mission statement to your women’s ERG can be a huge force for progress, as our everywomanChampions have discovered…
1. ‘Breaking the taboo’ — An overarching theme that enables courageous conversations.
A powerful network is one that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, bringing out into the open what may for too long have gone unsaid. In that sense, a women’s network—or indeed any form of employee resource group—can be like a mirror for the organisation, enabling it to see opportunities for new initiatives and/or course correction where outdated policies are concerned.
‘Recently, one of the successes that we’ve had in our women’s group was around the menopause,’ recalls Jane Ashworth, Global Retail Programs Director, who is the voice of Lenovo’s UK Women In Leadership programme, which strives to support diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and delivers guidance, networking and training to its employees. ‘One brave lady had sent out an email to a group of similar-aged females in the business —essentially saying that she was struggling with her symptoms, and she needed to turn those struggles into something positive and form a support group within our women’s network. We were inundated with people wanting to be part of it.’
‘The menopause is still quite a delicate subject, but what struck me was that there was a real passion driving these women to find the support they needed to be effective in their roles. And they didn’t want to have to hide the fact they were having that conversation. That immediate action of just getting together and having that chat really unlocked so many conversations for these wonderful women—and also for the many men who expressed a wish to educate themselves out of concern for the women in their lives. Out of that situation, we’ve been able to see that the mission of our women’s network is very simple. It’s all about ‘Breaking the taboo’. We exist to take the embarrassment away from having a difficult conversation, and being pragmatic about what support and signposting we need to offer our people.’
2. ‘Constructively agitate’ — guarantee outcomes with a mission statement that puts the ‘how’ into your organisation’s success story.
Women’s networks are replete with lived experiences. When shared through open and honest dialogue, these lived experiences can be key to driving organisational change on any number of critical issues.
Sitting on the women’s network committee at Centrica, Project Manager Gemma Thomson has seen first-hand how the life experiences of members can influence change. ‘One of our goals this year as a network is to ‘constructively agitate’ with senior leaders to raise awareness of issues, change policies and move the dial on our culture,’ she says.
‘An example of that is the strides we have made around our domestic abuse policy. As a result of our action, we now have a much more robust policy in place for how we manage domestic abuse of our people, and how we can raise awareness around that. It has been a key success for us as a network, which has over 1,100 members across the UK, Denmark and North America, and as a result we’ve been empowered to create a policy around giving time off to people who have been impacted by abuse.’
‘We’re also applying this approach to the results of our employee engagement survey, which showed that the black female experience within the company is significantly worse than for other ethnic minorities. By constructively agitating we’re at the start of understanding what’s driving this experience, and, more importantly, asking ‘What can we do about it?’
3. ‘Include everyone’ — expand your network’s size and power by reinforcing your open-door policy.
As an organisation that empowers businesses to achieve their gender inclusion goals, everywoman has long recognised the importance of male allyship for female advancement. Smart women’s networks recognise that not only is there power in numbers, but there’s power in the diversity of the collective trying to drive the change.
Says Sarah Mercer, Continuous Improvement Lead, FedEx: ‘Our purpose at FedEx is to increase the diversity of our workforce in order to support business growth and profitability. In order to be effective at driving that change, our women’s network itself must be diverse.’
‘Our network is called the Women’s Inclusive Network, and 17% of its members are male allies. It’s a recognition of the fact that we need people across all different demographics to ensure that we are a truly inclusive business at every level and across all functions. We believe that only from that place can we really influence the business agenda and drive our diversity and inclusion policies and strategies.’
4. ‘Tangible goals lead to tangible change’ — put SMART targets are the heart of who you are and what you do.
The SMART acronym—smart, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound—has long been used to ensure that organisational or individual goals stay on track. A savvy network will ensure its purpose is measured by results; such is the case at global investment manager, M&G.
Says its ally group rep, Jayven Sandy, Product Owner – Low Code Technologies, ‘We have affinity networks that range across gender, ethnicity, and mental health, and an overarching ambition for M&G to be an exceptional place to work and a diverse and inclusive culture. But where our global network, Elevate, is concerned, we wanted to have something really tangible that we were working towards.’
‘So we’ve come up with a goal of having 40% of our executive committee members and their direct reports be women by 2025. Having that very concrete, measurable and timely target means we’re continually working towards that end result. Anything less specific and it would be so easy not to. And giving yourself a deadline always puts urgency around it.
One of the changes that this approach has brought about is that we’ve moved away from having a women’s-only network. We now have a gender network that is inclusive of everyone and ensures everyone can gain understanding around our goal—and play their part in helping us achieve it.’
An everywomanChampions membership allows those individuals working to drive forward their organisation’s diversity and inclusion goals to benefit from the sharing of knowledge and experience with their peers in other companies and sectors. Eligible members may be part of the executive leadership team with responsibility for DEI goals, sit within the HR function, or have committee involvement in their organisation’s women’s network or gender affinity group and demonstrate a clear passion for women’s inclusion within their organisation or sector.