How to start a women’s networking group at work
At EW Group we often get asked our thoughts on setting up employee resource groups or networks. Women’s networks are particularly popular and we are regularly asked if it’s something that companies should offer to their employees. We have revisited one of our most popular blogs by Caroline Arnold and updated it with our top tips on how to start a women’s networking group at work. All of these tips can be applied to other staff networks too.
We would certainly recommend introducing network groups at work, such as a women’s network. But first we would suggest thinking 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 may set up to fail, which will of course have detrimental impact on your diversity and inclusion efforts.
Here are some things to consider when thinking about setting up your Women’s Network, to ensure that it has an ongoing impact.
Why set up a women’s network?
These are some of the benefits to having a women’s networking group:
• Meeting others in the company to grow 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, BAME or LGBTQ+ 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’ then you may open this to everyone in the company for the wider benefit.
1. Set the focus for your Women’s Network
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, growing awareness of unconscious bias or brand positioning, for example.) If so, this should be reflected in the selection of network members.
If the 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 for and where you will meet. You may want to film the sessions so that anyone one 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 will manage communication in 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 see if that has that changed at all as a result of the work that the women’s network has done.
Caroline Arnold has significant experience in equality, diversity and inclusion, and unconscious bias. Caroline has a proactive approach, working in collaboration with clients and supporting them through reviewing key diversity and inclusion policies. Caroline skilfully designs and delivers engaging diversity training programmes helping organisations identify their core strengths and providing measurable recommendations on how management and their teams can make the most of their diverse abilities. She is especially passionate about gender diversity, working to empower women and helping companies retain their best talent.
Listen to reWorked - EW Group's company culture podcast
In this episode, Cherron Inko-Tariah, founder of the Power of Staff Networks, shares her insights and tips on what makes a successful staff network (and what doesn’t) and how you can start your own staff network within your organisation. Listen here.
EW Group’s diversity consultant and executive coach, Caroline Arnold shares how coaching can help individuals and how it fits into the broader organisational picture. Listen here.