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Getting Women's Networks Right

Let's face it: corporate women's networks don't have the best reputation. These developmental forums for women―called affinity groups, diversity councils or employee resource groups (ERGs)―are all too often typecast as social hours. Even the best laid plans at many companies have left male and female employees seeing women's ERGs as less-than-credible gatherings where the meaty issues go unaddressed.

What's more, there seems to be puzzlement about why these groups exist. Are they for networking and support? Building a diverse bench of management candidates? Expanding business development opportunities? With murky goals and unclear definitions, it's no wonder we're confused.

While the business case for such groups has been cited for years, the ROI is still not always obvious. Recent data may put it in a different light though, particularly in the case of Aetna. The company's chief diversity officer, Raymond Arroyo, found that through the health insurer's annual employee engagement survey of 34,000 employees, members of Aetna's 15 ERGs yield engagement scores that are nearly 10% higher than those who are not ERG members. With engagement comes improved loyalty, retention, and productivity, awakening some companies to the idea that ERGs can deliver true competitive advantage.

An investment in women's ERGs may yield particular value. Women leave paid working roles far more often than their male counterparts. Not only are women leaving to manage care-taking responsibilities at home, but according to Cheskin Research, a California-based strategic market research and consulting company, women also quit corporate jobs in favor of entrepreneurship at twice the rate of men. ERGs targeted at women may therefore influence company policies and advocacy for change, and maximize efforts to retain women despite "on and off ramps" from the workplace.

A handful of companies represent bright spots, having found ways to build women's networks with teeth. These ERGs are taken seriously internally and externally and are used as effective recruiting tools for attracting women and building a diverse leadership pipeline. What's more, these firms are unanimously able to attract the hardest group to engage in ERG meetings: senior executives.

Consider these elements of navigating the ERG terrain effectively:

1.They don't assume all is well
Government-sponsored enterprise Fannie Mae enforces accountability within its women's ERG. Rather than operating from a purely "do what you want" approach, volunteer-led coalitions enjoy autonomy from a programmatic perspective, but answer to the Office of Diversity & Inclusion regarding long-term plans and alignment with the organization's "pillars." Said Darlene Slaughter, Chief Diversity Officer at Fannie Mae in an interview, "I don't micromanage. Our women's ERG has a lot of freedom to do what's right for their membership―and yet they know they must report results back to management within the Office of Diversity & Inclusion. We give support and ensure accountability through monthly meetings, periodic reports, and quarterly programs."

2.It's not just about in-person meetings
The very best women's initiatives engage people in multiple formats. Given decentralized, global workforces, the in-house "lunch and learn" is no longer enough. PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has managed to continue the conversation with men and women through a multifaceted blog called The Gender Agenda. With the tagline "Women at PwC: a global business issue," it sends a powerful message that PwC's Global Gender Advisory Council provides advice on the issue of diversity directly to PwC's Chairman, Dennis Nally. Xerox is also on the cutting edge of making connections between women and role models. They've mixed the concepts of social networking with "match.com" to pair mentors and mentees in lasting relationships. The beauty? Mentors and mentees don't ever have to meet, let alone be co-located.

3.They continuously communicate results
The law firm Vinson & Elkins LLP created their Women's Initiative in 2000, engaging a board comprised of internal and external stakeholders to help build the effort. Karen L. Hirschman, who chairs both the Vinson & Elkins' Women's Initiative and the Talent Management Committee, talked with me about how important it is to relay results. "While primarily an internal communication vehicle, the firm established the WaVE Report to showcase our women lawyers' most critical accomplishments" said Hirschman. Members' publications, promotions, newly won business, board appointments, and highly visible projects are all showcased. One look at the WaVE Report will have you convinced; the betterment of the individual women members and the firm comes through.

Despite their relative youth in the workplace, there is no reason that women's ERGs can't be leveraged by even the small business. Whether for testing business ideas, attracting new talent or keeping incumbents engaged, these forums are far from passé.

What about the lone woman looking to start a gender initiative where there isn't one? Harvard Business School's Robin J. Ely and Stanford University's Debra E. Meyerson (co-authors of the book, The Difference "Difference" Makes edited by Deborah L. Rhode), advise women to create their own momentum noting, "Find allies--in other women, men, other 'identity groups' in one's company that have similar concerns--who might be interested in collaborating to make change. Then together, explore how existing work practices may compromise both equity and effectiveness. Design small, local experiments to change these practices; monitor the effects of the changes; and then publicize, publicize, publicize the successes so that people can learn from them."

By Selena Rezvani

 |  August 20, 2010; 1:22 PM ET
Category:  Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Another "woman" piece. How boring. Women need to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | August 24, 2010 10:56 AM
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Thanks for these tips, quite helpful.

Posted by: garbo6 | August 21, 2010 7:50 AM
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