Women’s networks diversity of opinion
A packed event at Chartered Accountants’ Hall recently heard how women’s networks can play a vital role in driving corporate diversity and inclusion, but must be clear about their purpose and involve men if they are to bring about change.
Three recognised experts in diversity and inclusion spoke at the debate, hosted by Younger Members London. Each brought a diverse opinion to the conversation, highlighting the important role senior leaders must play if organisations are to become truly gender balanced.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, Consultant, Coach & Author
"If you want to set up a women’s network be clear on the network’s purpose. If the purpose is to provide women with a space to share experiences then great, but don’t expect the network to solve the company’s gender balance issues; it can’t and may in fact have a detrimental effect. Male colleagues often see the women’s network as an indication that gender balance is just a women’s issue when in fact it’s a strategic business opportunity.
"In order to gender balance a company, the push needs to come from the leaders, and it needs to include both men and women. By their nature, women’s groups are made up of the ‘out group’ and so don’t have the power and influence to make the necessary changes. By excluding the ‘in group’, i.e. men, they exclude the very people who are most likely to have the power and influence to make a change and bring about gender balance. They ask women to solve a problem not of their own making.
“Women’s networks focus on fixing the women. We’ve been trying this for decades and it’s clear it’s not the women that are the problem, it’s the system. A clearly defined gender network open to and owned by men and women equally can be a good part of an organisation’s toolkit. But in order to gender balance, the company has to focus on empowering leaders to become convinced and convincing on this subject so that they can fix the system.”
Harry Queenborough, EY, Associate Director
“Accountability for gender balance of an organisation rests with its senior leadership team (SLT) and board; EY is committed to building a culture driven by inclusive leadership and has publicly committed to doubling its representation of women and ethnic minorities (40% and 20% respectively) in our partnership by July 2025 and will double investment in targeted talent programmes for our female and BME talent.
“Women’s networks enable an organisation’s diversity and inclusiveness strategy because they help people belong. We know that a strong sense of belonging can lead to better collaboration, retention and business performance. When we feel we belong, we are more motivated and engaged. They also help us create and strengthen our client relationships and build our brand in the market, creating new ways for our people to contribute to our business.
Women’s networks focused on gender issues are more impactful when they engage men as members, volunteers and leaders; bringing everyone together provides a more complete perspective on gender issues within an organisation, both female as well as male, enriches dialogue, creates momentum for positive change and promotes an inclusive culture; for this reason more and more organisations’ diversity networks focused on gender issues are called gender networks or have a gender neutral name, such as ‘Balance’.”
Jan Babiak, Chair of the Audit Committee of Walgreens Boots Alliance
“Work life balance and parenting issues should not be in women’s networks as many fathers want careers and time with their families as well and we should not exclude them from related discussions and efforts.
“Everyone in the work place at every level will benefit from a lifelong exploration of the continuously evolving body of knowledge around the differences between men and women. “Those in positions of power often need constructive shepherds to help them effectively sponsor diversity efforts rather than criticism for the lack of diversity. We will all make more progress if we begin by assuming positive intent and working to nurture a healthy discussion.”
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