How to start a women’s networking group at work
Caroline Arnold is a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, specialising in equality, diversity and inclusion, as well as unconscious bias at EW Group.
Staff networks and employee resource groups can benefit both organisations and staff. Here we give advice on how to start a women’s networking group, get buy in-and ensure success. All of these tips can be applied to other staff networks too, and are relevant whether you are organising face-to-face events or operating virtually.
First, think about setting clear objectives of what you want that network to achieve. You will also need a structure for the group to work within. The risk otherwise is that the group is set up to fail, which will of course have a detrimental impact on your diversity and inclusion efforts.
Why set up a Women’s Network?
These are some of the benefits of having a women’s networking group:
- Making connections in the virtual world; some of your staff may live on their own so they may find connecting with others invaluable
- Meeting others in the company to grow its own network
- Offering strong peer support
- Increasing confidence
- Sharing relevant and similar experiences
- Improving talent pipeline
- Gaining advice from others and be challenged in a safe and supportive environment
- Discussing topics that are relevant, such as career progression, how to build your influence and managing work-life pressures.
Having a network that focuses on one group such as women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) or LGBTQ+ staff can be controversial for some as they may feel that it is segregating people. However, if managed well, it provides a valuable resource and forum for under-represented groups. And remember, you can always open up some sessions to everyone in the company. For example, if the women’s network wanted to run a session on ‘how to improve your presentation skills’ or on ‘how to be an ally at work’ then you may open this to everyone in the company for the wider benefit.
Seven tips on how to set up a Women’s Networking Group in your organisation
Here are some things to consider when thinking about setting up your women’s network, to ensure that it has an ongoing impact.
1. Set the focus for your Women’s Networking Group
Start by asking yourselves, ‘What do we want to achieve through this network?’ Is there a particular theme or area of focus behind the new group? (This could be representation, bullying and harassment, privilege, racism, language, growing awareness of unconscious bias or brand positioning, for example.) If so, this should be reflected in the selection of network members. You may want to create terms of reference which everyone commits to and states the objectives of the network. An example could be ‘provide an opportunity for members to learn from each other and wider experts’ or ‘be an enabler of change in Diversity and Inclusion’.
If your organisation would like to advance more women to senior levels, it makes sense to ensure women already at that level in the business are actively involved in the network. Research has shown that people need to see ‘people like them’, so having women at senior levels come and share their story will help those more junior members of the team see what is possible. It may be that they benefited from mentoring or executive coaching and that encourages those in the room listening to seek out a mentor or coach in the business.
2. Give structure to the Women’s Network from the start
A useful model to consider is a steering group, with members drawn from each part of the business, to provide oversight for the women’s network. Members of this steering group can rotate in after a two-year term, for example.
Give careful consideration to your messaging. On the one hand, there is a process to follow to join the steering group. On the other, for the network as a whole, everyone who is interested is welcome and will play an active role. There will be work to be done by everyone: this may be helping run events, leading talks or presentations, feeding in stats, etc.
Agree how often the women’s network will meet, how long the sessions will last, where you will meet, or which platform you will use such as Teams or Zoom. You may want to film/record the sessions so that anyone who can’t make them in person can watch and learn at a later date. If you decide to meet quarterly, then think about how you will manage communication between sessions. For example, can you continue the conversation via your intranet, Yammer, or Whatsapp groups?
3. Target buy-in from your senior leaders
Look to secure senior buy-in for your women’s network group. A message of support from a high-profile figure will highlight equality as a company issue. It’s also important to invite men in the organisation to be active allies and think of possible roles for them as the network takes shape (as mentors or sponsors, for instance). This will help get the buy-in from everyone in the organisation and not see things like flexible working as a ‘women’s issue’ if men are talking about it and working flexibly as well.
4. Position the Women’s Network correctly
Proper positioning is key if the network is to succeed. The onus should be set firmly on changing the business culture, not on changing the individual women within it. From the outset, the network needs to work out what the organisation is going to do to make its policies and processes more inclusive.
5. Bring in the right mix of skills
For the wider women’s network members, ask your people to fill in a simple questionnaire with details on why they want to join, what they can offer, and the time per month they’d be able to commit to the network as it grows.
That may then give suggestions on what the first few sessions can focus on to offer the widest benefit to those attending.
6. Get the Women’s Network noticed
Longer-term, think about how the network will gain status. How will its work be recognised internally and externally? Are there company awards that would be relevant? Will the network’s activities pique the CEO’s curiosity? To show a return on investment consider working with HR to collect data on how many women are at senior levels and then repeat after 2 years to see if that has changed at all as a result of the work that the women’s network has done.
7. Making the most of the virtual world
A lot of us have found ourselves working remotely since March with no immediate plans to return to the office. This can present some barriers when networking but also allows for opportunities as we may find that we can use the time that was for commuting on networking.
If you are the organiser of a virtual networking event, make it fun and engaging by having a guest speaker and making the most of ‘speed networking’ in breakout rooms.
If you are attending a virtual networking event remember that you are visible online if you have the camera on as much as you would be at a live event, so consider the lighting, background noise and quality of the camera as much as you can with the technology that you have available.
Make the most of the chat function to get involved in the conversation and introduce yourself to all those on the call. One of your topics that you may want to explore as a networking group is the impact that working from home has on the individuals in the network group and how can the organisation best support individuals during this time.
To learn more about staff networking in general, listen to our reWorked podcast with the inspirational Cherron Inko-Tariah (Series 2, Episode 3), author of the go-to guide on setting up staff networks, The Power of Staff Networks.