How to build a successful women's network | Women's Agenda

How to build a successful women’s network

As organisations look to address the gender gap in the workplace, more and more companies are launching internal women’s networks. These are usually driven by HR with the involvement of a couple of women executives as “sponsors”, or sometimes a group of women employees generally frustrated by a lack of action and who are looking to build a mutually supportive network with other female colleagues.

However, many women’s networks start with a bang but end up fading from view after several months or years as the result of a lack of strategic focus, wavering group morale, poor organisational buy-in and negative perceptions of the network – on the part of women and men.

Don’t get me wrong, as someone who has helped dozens of companies launch – and relaunch – women’s networks, I am a big believer in the value of these sorts of initiatives when executed properly and have witnessed their potential. But, frequently, they can become little more than a social club and, at worst, they can do more harm than good by excluding men and some women and perpetuating already engrained gender stereotypes.

It is these challenges, and a growing wave of new thinking around women’s networks such as this article from the Harvard Business Review, that led The Women’s Foundation Hong Kong to launch a project in partnership with McKinsey and 43 companies to identify and share best practice for corporate women’s networks.

The project reviewed the state of activity of women’s networks in Hong Kong, identified local and international best practice, hosted two capacity building workshops and culminated in the development of a framework for women’s networks which identifies five “success markers.” Most importantly, the project identified that a women’s network must be supported by a broader organisational ecosystem that supports gender diversity (building on McKinsey’s Women Matter research) and not sit off to one side of the organisation with limited opportunities for support by, and collaboration with, other parts of the business. Our ecosystem identifies nine factors that support a holistic gender diversity approach including CEO and management commitment, integration with business strategy, training dedicated to women, mentoring and sponsorship, networking and community building, HR policies and processes, targets and transparent reporting.

Providing women’s networks are integrated within this broader ecosystem, these five markers are key to supporting effective women’s networks.

  1. Objectives: Women’s networks often seem to lack clear objectives that can be delivered against in the next 3 to 5 years. Networks need to be guided by a focused set of objectives that will have an impact in advancing women in leadership positions in the organisation.
  2. Stakeholders: Having a clear understanding of the network’s target audience, and importantly the broader set of organisational stakeholders that networks need to engage and manage, is critical. Organisations need to remember that the network’s members are only one group of stakeholders and there are other stakeholders which are critical to the network’s impact and influence.
  3. Activities: The network’s activities should be carefully selected to ensure they are directly linked to the network’s objectives and are of benefit to the target audience.
  4. Operations: Women’s networks should be set up and run “like a business” with appropriate governance, succession planning, collaboration with HR/organisational development/the CEO’s office, strategic planning, targets and accountability.
  5. Brand: Perceptions can make or break a women’s network. While it might sometimes be appropriate to run activities which appeal to women, make sure they are professional and don’t perpetuate existing stereotypes. Proactive management of the brand equity and effective communications are essential.

These “success markers” support women’s networks to avoid some of the common pitfalls of similar networking groups and, most importantly, best position women’s networks to strategically and meaningfully drive organisational change.
For further information on this project and to receive a copy of the success markers framework, please email sally@thewomensfoundationhk.org

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