Diversity & Inclusion

Best Practices of Women’s Networks for Support, Development, and Advancement

Several practices separate top women’s networks from the rest

Women’s networks have the potential to dramatically increase the productive power of a group that represents more than half of the modern workforce – yet many firms still treat them as ‘nice to have’ opportunities.

The reality is that women’s networks are critical success drivers for organizations that know how to use them productively. Their importance in building female leadership has been shown through numerous studies, including McKinsey consultants Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston’s book, How Remarkable Women Lead. These are not coffee klatches or gossip exchanges. The top women’s networks are multi-level, multi-ethnic powerhouses that harness female potential to create a competitive edge.

So what elements do the best women’s networks share? They have a strong goal orientation, operate in an integrated way with the rest of the organization, and provide value as leadership incubators. By understanding how each of these best practices moves the bar, it is possible for your organization to create a women’s network that sets you apart from your peers.

Being Goal Oriented

One of the primary best practices of women’s networks or women’s affinity groups is goal orientation. This focus on an end goal – development of young staff, networking across division, innovating on challenges – is what separates productive groups from pointless time-wasting societies. A women’s group with a purpose harnesses the power and energy of its members, while a group without purpose is reluctantly supported and sporadically attended.

Goals for women’s networks help them overcome other affinity group challenges within large organizations. It is easier for goal driven groups – those with a clear mission statement, values, and action plans – to earn executive level buy-in and sponsorship. They can more easily secure meaningful budget dollars since their existence provides a measurable ROI. Men, skeptics, and detractors of affinity groups in general, have a harder time dismissing a group with a clear purpose and demonstrable results on initiatives pursued. From a global perspective, having a common goal for the group helps overcome differences in diversity definitions across organizational locations.

Take a look at your own firm’s women’s network. Regardless of the auspices under which it was established, what is it like now? Does it have a clear focus and goals? Is it active and thriving as an organization with a mission? Or is it a tick-box affinity group that makes your firm’s commitment to diverse development seem like nothing more than lip service? This can be a hard conversation to have, but an honest assessment of the health and purpose of your women’s networks can transform a network that is wasting space into a vehicle for driving change and building competitive advantages.

No Silos Allowed

Another element of the most successful women’s networks is that they are interconnected groups with strong ties to other parts of the organization. They do not operate in silos. It is transparent to everyone what the network does, how it works, and who is welcome to attend -- with the understanding that all are welcome! Successful women’s networks are inclusive across multiple levels and worksites, and that also means including men.

It is a myth that women’s networks are meant to be run only by women. Women do not live in a world without men, nor do they do business only in female exclusive environments. Strong women’s networks often include male leaders, male supporters, and males in regular attendance at group meetings. This is a part of a skills and issues focused group with the aim of advancing women’s interests -- a group that is not battling, excluding, or undercutting the value of help, support, and input from male counterparts. Men can and should be involved with women’s networks. They can contribute time, knowledge, and experience to women’s groups. It may be a simple action, such as attending speaker events or after-hours activities, or it may be more complex, such as advocating for an issue of interest or influencing another member of the organization to support the group. A difference in biology does not and should not cut out men as key partners in women’s development or women’s networks.

Along with including men, top women’s networks also make a point of including women from diverse backgrounds, such as a variety of ethnicities and staff positions. Building a competitive advantage through women’s networks is not an activity limited to C-suite level players, nor are women’s networks strictly top-down, charity mentoring adventures. They provide equal benefit to women of various ethnic backgrounds, and the interaction between different cultural orientations enriches their potential. Information sharing, goal advancement, and innovation power through emotional intelligence stems from all parts and backgrounds of your firm, and so, too, should the membership base of a best practice oriented women’s network.

Being a Leadership Incubator

Last but not least, top women’s networks serve as leadership incubators. They provide an environment outside of regular work or life responsibilities where participating women have the opportunity to lead, design new initiatives, and acquire critical skills for advancement. These women’s organizations actively train and cultivate leadership potential from within their ranks, making a clear contribution to the future success of the organization and the world.

For a prime example of a women’s network that is a leadership incubator, look no further than the Girl Scouts. Known as Girl Guides outside the U.S., this group provides opportunities for women from a young age to try out leadership challenges in an environment of safety and learning. The net result is a locally developed coterie of women around the world who share key values of leadership excellence and function seamlessly within the society around them.

This leadership incubation potential within your firm can be especially vital in building a competitive advantage that includes the Emotional Intelligent (EQ) factor and navigates multiple team cultures. Training for women outside of their regular work helps them build transferable skills that capitalize on their unique mental and emotional strengths. McKinsey & Company have shown that growing skills in alignment with valued strengths for women leads to greater leadership presence and potential. Diversity in backgrounds can also be explored in safety in women’s organizations, allowing local groups to act in ways that build your firm’s global cohesion and innovative power.

Take a look at your own firm’s women’s network. Does it operate as a best practice group with the potential for leaders to emerge? Many companies operate with women’s groups that are passive receivers of information or benefits, without pathways for women to lead projects or initiatives for the group. This wastes a vital opportunity for your firm and the women within it to expand their leadership potential and arrive at work challenges with a track record of leadership success in other areas to give them the confidence to push forward with new work opportunities.

Women’s networks have the potential to dramatically transform a major element of any workforce. Adopting best practices of being goal oriented, eliminating silos, and providing a leadership incubator allows your organization to leverage the power of the women on your team. The net result will be a more productive workgroup that can offer your company an irreplaceable competitive advantage in your space.

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