Women’s internal networks connecting to bottom line: Study

Groups have an impact in creating synergies that help advance business objectives

Women’s corporate networks might have started decades ago when there was a greater need for solidarity and support, but these days many of the groups still hold strong — despite greater numbers of women in the workforce and in leadership roles.

Maybe that’s because of their impact on the bottom line: Women’s internal networks (WINs) increase interaction among female employees, creating synergies that can play an instrumental role in advancing business objectives, according to a survey and roundtable discussion by the Financial Women’s Association (FWA) in New York.

“A lot of business is discussed, people are getting together and talking a lot more about things, so we found that some of that cross-cultivation really was adding to the bottom line because people were talking to each other more,” said Maureen Adolf, president of the FWA.

“While business objectives weren’t among the top goals cited by companies in creating WINs… it was a highly beneficial byproduct, helped sometimes by getting things over the line because people were communicating more.”

At larger organizations, and especially for people starting out in their career, it’s about having the opportunity to have cross-organizational access or work or network building, said Diana Stephenson, director of governance and shareholder relations at ENMAX in Calgary. 

“These networks allow people to connect, meet with people that they don’t typically interact with on a day-to-day work basis. So, by the very nature of them, you start to build this amazing network that goes well beyond the typical folks that you’re engaging and doing activities with and, through that, you’re learning more about the business, you’re learning about how the pieces fit together, you’re hearing about the experiences of other employees from different areas of the organization. So yes, I agree, it’s a very powerful tool when done right.”

Having successfully launched a network several years ago called E-WIN, ENMAX is now evolving the program and launching a new version called EN-power. Part of the focus will be on professional development, leadership and soft skills training, said Stephenson.

“Amazing leaders are leaders who know our business well and who know how to navigate well in our industry,” she said. “From a strategic perspective for ENMAX, what better way to equip our employees than by giving them the knowledge they need to be confident, to be successful in their work and to feel like they’re part of a broader community.

“When somebody is starting out, especially a young professional woman in the workplace, going into an industry like electricity, like oil and gas, where there’s a long legacy, a long history, getting your head around what the role looks like, what the business is about and what leadership starts to look like in those settings is something that you don’t necessarily learn... in school.”

Employee networks create almost like a safe space, where workers of different identities, including women, can get together and discuss their careers, share their experiences and find mentors and sponsors, “which then obviously has a huge impact on women’s advancement,” said Candice Morgan, senior director and consultant, global member services, at Catalyst in New York. And diversity officers who are often connected to these networks can raise awareness around women’s issues and experiences, and provide advice to senior leaders and HR on policy and inclusive aspects, she said.

“On the organizational side, leaders are saying these employees have a better understanding of how some of the business works and how their group impacts business planning.”

Engagement, retention
WINs also increase employee engagement and reduce attrition — 39 per cent of the 583 female employees surveyed by FWA said their firm’s network might be a factor in their staying with their firm. And newer employees are more likely to say their WIN contributes to their reasons for staying with their employer while 77 per cent of respondents at firms without a WIN said they would join if their organizations had one. 

“It becomes almost a competitive thing,” said Adolf, adding the groups are also a means to engage clients around diversity.
Some women’s networks providing mentoring and onboarding support for new employees, said Morgan. So it’s not just about making the network effective from an operating and business alignment standpoint, but making sure they’re inclusive.

More advanced organizations that have had these networks for 20-plus years also have leadership roles in those networks that are formally recognized roles through the talent management system, she said. At GE, for example, the women’s network leaders are high-potentials identified through talent planning. 

“So literally running a network is considered a hot job, a highly visible assignment, so it’s taken very seriously,” said Morgan.
Some internal networks struggle to find volunteers or ask a lot of steering committees, said Stephenson. Which is why ENMAX decided to tap about 20 people to serve as leaders within EN-power.

“By signing up to be a network leader, that means you’ll have accountability for helping or supporting one to two events a year (and) you’ll make yourself available to employees as a subject matter expert in your field,” she said. “We’ve really tried to find a way to empower a number of people to play the leadership role in the network. We’re very confident that that strategy will help sustain it over time, and the added benefit is you now have 20 ambassadors for the different programs. You’ve got 20 people whose skin is in the game, whose name is attached, and they’re going to be able to broadcast the messages about the network across the different areas of the organization.”

Changing times
The evolution of these networks or employee resource groups has also included greater inclusivity, such as the acceptance of men. Almost 40 per cent of respondents to FWA’s survey thought men should be able to join a WIN, saying it’s an important way for them to understand the concerns of women and to have greater exposure to the broad range of female employees who could move into leadership roles, said Adolf.

But that still leaves 60 per cent of women who are not in favour.

“For a lot of women, it’s kind a safe place to be, to discuss things and to do it among your own, and the idea of men joining a women’s network, it changes the whole face of it. So it’s really a split decision on whether men should be involved or not,” she said.

There’s a way to maintain that base of women connecting in a women’s network while still having some programming and events that invite men in, which is important, said Morgan.

ENMAX is being inclusive with its network, said Stephenson, adding the target audience is very much women and all forms of diversity in the workplace, but it would not prohibit other groups.

A number of the subject matter experts and mentors are male, especially in more senior roles, so there’s a need for buy-in and visible support from both genders, she said.

“Because of the nature of our industry, there is a large complement of males….. in electricity, oil and gas, and we feel it would be a learning resource and a miss if there wasn’t the opportunity and access in that way.”

Social media also has the potential to play a greater role, especially when it comes to enticing the younger generations and spreading the word. 

“We found that millennials, the younger women, were interested in participating in these groups… but they universally were concerned about how they get information about these WINs,” said Adolf. “They’re all about social media and electronic means and they wanted to get it that way, and that typically is not how any kind of advertising about what’s going on is occurring within the corporation, so that was an interesting little side thing.”

Once the initial rollout has happened and the momentum is going, that is something ENMAX will be looking at,  using a LinkedIn profile or Twitter account to advertise events and points of interest around the network, said Stephenson.

“That is the next frontier, that is something that we really want to build in.”

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