10 Tips on Leading a Women’s Network

At the 2016 Women in Engineering event at the RNLI, which I devised and delivered as chair of the Women’s Network. Pictured with fellow spokeswoman Lucy Devall, Innovation Officer at Bournemouth Arts University.

1.  A squad of like-minded souls can help you achieve your dreams and goals

Women’s networks are not just about inspiring, motivating, learning from each other and challenging the status quo;  they can help boost your mood, give you confidence and give perspective to the decisions that lay ahead.

In fact, surrounding yourself with the right people is the fastest way to success according to evidence by the Equality of Opportunity Project.

It’s something I found at as RNLI Women’s Network Chair. Being with positive, driven and progressive men and women from all backgrounds not only stretched my thinking and developed my professional skills; they inspired me to pursue my goals and overcome challenges.

2. Be prepared: there will be critics

More often than not I meet women and men who, just because they don’t see inequality or haven’t experienced it, simply don’t think it’s a problem. Some people will question why a women’s network needs to exist, others will confuse you for man-hating.

But not experiencing discrimination yourself does not mean that it doesn’t happen.

A fact sheet for your team to field questions can help. Here’s some to get you started.

Pregnancy- and maternity-related discrimination are still very much in evidence and sexual harassment at work also remains a serious problem. Half of UK women have been sexually harassed at work, facing very poor outcomes for reporting it.

We have grown up in a culture that has historically constructed successful leaders as male. Anything other than this breaks the norm, so that male leaders are unconsciously seen as commanding and competitive, but females are bossy or socially deviant.

Women’s career confidence, aspirations and progression diminishes so much as they move through their career.A lack of female role models and sponsors, particularly in certain industries such as engineering. 

Perhaps because unconscious bias – the inherent snap judgements we make of others based on their gender, skin colour, age and accents – can significantly hold women back. They can be far worse for black and ethnic women who may experience prejudice in multiple layers. Women are also some of the worst perpetrators against other women: Radio 4’s documentary shows even avowed feminists can be prejudiced against other women and Harvard’s global study that found 76% of men and women tend to think of men as better suited for careers and women as homemakers. Yet unconscious biases are the enemy of good leadership, stymying diversity, recruitment and an organisation’s culture.

Apart from the moral and ethical argument for equality, any businesses looking for incentives should note of the plentiful studies that show women’s greater participation in the workforce leads to greater business competitiveness and a greater contribution to the economy.

Other studies show at every single level of the corporate ladder, women are rated as better overall leaders than men by peers, bosses, direct reports and colleagues.

3. Include men as allies

We were helped in changing workplace culture by our male allies, pictured here at a joint event between the Women’s Network, LGBT Network and Disability Network.

It depends what your network is for, but if it is for driving workplace gender equality then men need to be part of that equation.

Gender inequity does not just hamper women – men suffer too; and men who act as allies to women whenever possible are also key to changing a workplace culture.

Take flexible working and shared paternity. They benefit men who have a right to be more involved in the care of their children. But many dads fear asking for more flexibility might damage their careers. That’s why tackling unconscious bias – in this case not just about what fatherhood looks like but what a committed employee looks like – can benefit men as much as women.

Having male allies also helps build the respect and understanding needed between male and female colleagues that can lead to a happier and more productive workplace with better access to sponsorship and female career advancement. It also helps illuminate the responsibility men have to facilitate this change: namely to assess their interactions with all colleagues, and whenever possible, serve as allies, helping those who are underrepresented in the organisation feel included.

So if we included men, why did we call ourselves a women’s network?  It did admittedly cause some confusion. But we decided that, at that time, the name was a true reflection of the network’s core purpose: to empower and support women in the workplace with men as allies.

4. Listen to your members and focus on what’s important

Strong groups have specific aims. What’s important for women in your organisation?

Take the case of Allison Steiner and her colleagues in earth sciences. They couldn’t find a specific network that offered the mentoring they needed in their field, so they set up the Earth Science Women’s Network, to help young female scientists start their careers. Their focus was on peer mentoring, workshops, and networking at professional conferences.

So what was important at the RNLI?

Was it hosting International Women’s Day events to motivate women to progress their careers and enable male peers to spot opportunities to sponsor them?

Was it chairing a Men As Allies debate in 2017 in partnership with LV, JP Morgan and Old Mutual Wealth or celebrating International National Women in Engineering 2016 and 2017?

While the events were inspiring and contributed towards gender inclusiveness in their own right our priority, according to a 2017 internal survey, turned out to be friendship, support and advocacy on policy and procedure. People wanted more informal events closer to where they worked at times that suited them.

But the big question was how. The RNLI has a vast army of volunteers and 4,000 paid staff, including part-time workers and seasonal workers around the UK and Ireland working in professions ranging from engineering to HR. Could we really be relevant to everyone and reach everyone? The answer was no – we’d only been going for 2 years and we were still finding our feet; some challenges were out of our control and we had to be sensible with plans for expansion. But we could make a start.

So we stripped back our programme of inspiring events and practical webinars on subjects such as LinkedIn skills and personal resilience and focussed on how we could deliver more informal events closer to staff around the UK and Ireland base on topics that were more relevant locally.

We focussed on one theme a year – such as Men As Allies – that could be anchor for a main event. We joined forces with other networks, such as the Disability and LGBT networks, to raise our profile and awareness of common issues.

And we created stronger links with senior sponsors to enable the network to advocate on issues affecting women in the organisation and identified certain women within the committee team who would be a first point of call for any staff member seeking advice.

Scrutinising the results and implementing change was no easy task given the time constraints of the passionate volunteer base, but one I really recommend for any network to stay relevant and useful.

5. Get organised and build your team  

two man and two woman standing on green grass field
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

There are five key lessons I took away from running the RNLI Women’s Network team.

One: Team players are key: you don’t just want people who have a useful skill or interest in the network, you want those who will show up.

Two: Remember your volunteers are there because they feel just as passionate as you do, so get to know what motivates them so you can delegate better.

Three: Foster team spirit and avoid the network becoming a chore. With a network spread over the UK and Ireland, physically meeting up was tough but worthwhile. A concise and lively meeting agenda can help. A tool we used at our socials was to post notes with a sentence saying what we needed help with, be it interview skills, public speaking or simply settling into the area.  Those who could help posted back their number or a tip. It was a lovely tool for bigger networking events too.

Four: Manage the workload. It might feel hard to do this when you’re managing a job and voluntarily  running the network, but if things become too much for everyone, focus on a few key things.

Five: Give people freedom to make their own decisions. We gave people specific roles, such as treasurer, communications lead or  community lead. Then we let them get on with it, only helping when needed.

6. Get something on the calendar and communicate the hell out of it

It’s helpful to have a routine, so members know what to expect and when. So if you’d like to meet monthly, aim for a second event on the calendar in that time, so people leave the first event with something to pop in their diaries.

To get the word out we set up an intranet page, hosted a dedicated Yammer page and invited people to receive an email newsletter. We also set up a Facebook page where we could reach people who worked out of season and those who didn’t have access to the intranet.

While all this looked great on paper it could become labour heavy for volunteers. In reality, the best method for communicating events was word of mouth, management emails, team meetings and politely harassing senior leaders to shout about it. In future, I’d concentrate on one or two key digital channels and use them well.

7.  Partner up and be open to different opinions and ideas

The more people you can connect with the better for you and the network.

If you want to represent all women, it’s important to include various groups of women and listen to all their different experiences of prejudice and bias. The same principle should be applied to your male allies to avoid an over representation of senior male management.

Building relationships with executive leaders and senior managers can help tackle issues. Our rapport with these people, particularly in underrepresented fields for women such as operations and engineering, was key to understanding issues in those areas and building awareness of the network.

Collaborating with chairs of networks outside your organisation can generate some fresh thinking. Our partnership with JP Morgan, LV and Old Mutual Wealth, not only enabled more inspiring joint events, but gave us food for thought on how we were organised.

Make use of the contacts your organisation already has. Janet Cooper, an RNLI Trustee and former vice-president of UN Women, gave her time to deliver a speech on gender equality at the opening of the network in 2016. She was also a strong internal advocate and sounding board for ideas, as was record breaking yachtswoman Dee Caffari, an RNLI Council member. All that experience was priceless and free.

8. Be yourself

It’s taken me years to be comfortable with my authentic self, but I’d like to think I’m finally there!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about how to be a successful leader, it’s to be yourself. Not only will people trust you more, you’ll gain more respect and be happier in your own skin too.

How can you do this if the thought of showing your true self fills you with dread? I found mind-mapping positive leadership traits I liked a useful tool along with developing my self-awareness. I asked for constructive feedback from peers and colleagues, some of whom became great mentors and friends.

Yes, I ate humble pie a few times. But with a degree of flexibility and acceptance, I’ve come out with leadership style I’m at ease with.

9. You’ll develop new skills and there will be personal highlights

I used to tremble like a dog off to the vets before any public speaking. Now I tame my nerves with a confidence trick. After the first few warbled sentences I trust I will get into my stride. Practice makes perfect.

In 2016 I project managed the first Women in Engineering Day at the RNLI with an incredible bunch of volunteers from the network. We invited fifty 11-13 year-old Dorset schoolgirls to the RNLI College in Poole to meet female RNLI engineers and learn more about the field in a bid to inspire them to consider engineering as a future career. Less than 10% of the engineering workforce are women, so this event had real purpose not only in helping to redress that social balance, but in raising awareness internally of the RNLI’s responsibility to carve a more inclusive workplace and be seen as a sector role model.

I can honestly say it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Not least because I strengthened some useful project management and organisation skills, but because it started a momentum for change in the engineering department. Most excitingly it also generated the desired shift in thinking among the students and inspired one student to do work experience with the RNLI’s Innovation team. It was one of those moments that leaves you buzzing for days and weeks afterwards.

10. You’ll feel a sense of purpose and go on a journey

In the evolution of the network many of us went on our own journey; from the managers who found value in the network to increase inclusivity in their teams to members of the network team who found new skills. I myself learnt to challenge my own subconscious suppositions, such as that not every woman (or man) wants a ‘career’; they may want a job to simply pay the bills, afford their lifestyle or enjoy using their skills. In doing so they have a right to be treated with respect and given opportunities to develop without being judged.

I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. I’ve been an advocate for gender equality since school when I campaigned for girls to play football along with the boys and at university where I helped campaign for rape refuge centres and ran women’s magazine Lippy. The last two years being on the team and then leading the group as chair has stoked the fire in my belly once more.

What are your experiences of women’s networks? Do you think they work? How could they be better?

Let me know by commenting back here and feel free to ask me about any of the points raised in this article.

#Womensnetworks #inclusion #diversity #menasallies #forwardthinking

Disclaimer: The facts outlined here about the RNLI Women’s Network were accurate at the time of writing in December 2017. The author has since left the RNLI and is now on maternity leave, so the network’s organisation and remit may have changed. The blog reflects the opinions of the author.

Published by Julia Bullas

Hi, I'm Julia: a journalist, writer, content strategist and campaigner. Get in touch to see how I can help you. Julia

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