Diversity networks ‘help businesses recruit and retain talent’

Report makes direct link between women’s or LGBT groups and organisational outcomes, but diversity has to be seen as a ‘mainstream’ issue, say experts

Encouraging and supporting networks for specific demographic groups has a direct link with retention and makes individuals feel better connected to their employer, according to the first significant, large-scale UK study into the topic.

Most large companies have made official or semi-official networks and networking events a key part of their diversity and inclusion efforts. And the Networks that work report, from the Women Ahead organisation, said it could now prove that businesses with the most active and diverse networks were seeing benefits in both recruitment and retention.

“Networks aren’t just a nice thing to talk about,” said Liz Dimmock, CEO and founder of Women Ahead, at a launch event for the report. “They’re a really key business enabler that leads to bottom line performance, productivity and innovation.”

The report studied 180 networks spanning gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and more in 31 companies, as well as three cross-sector networks. The overwhelming majority, it found, were still being run on a voluntary basis, while 75 per cent had been set up on the initiative of employees and had grown organically.

There was still relatively limited organisational investment in setting up and maintaining networks, or supporting the work of network coordinators, though businesses increasingly allowed individuals paid time to dedicate to network-related activity.

Among the networks studied was Women@Google, which began life when Sheryl Sandberg noticed she was the only woman in most internal meetings, and began to explore the challenges faced by her female colleagues. It now has 25,000 members globally, with the UK the second largest chapter.

The presence of such a vocal network helps Google’s recruitment efforts, a point reinforced by Sarah Churchman, human capital director and head of talent, inclusion and wellbeing at PwC, who said: “The most active members of our firm on social media are the members of our networks, and we know people are attracted to join PwC because of that social media activity.”

Personal development was cited by 90 per cent of the organisations studied as a key reason for having a network. But there was little evidence that membership of a network was directly useful for individual career advancement. The report did reject the suggestion, however, that membership of a women’s network in particular could be directly detrimental to your career, finding:  “Participation of a network – as a member, leader or coordinator – is positive on a personal and professional basis.”

But regardless of the size or nature of your networks, the panel at the report’s launch event agreed it was essential that they helped diversity issues become mainstream. Gender parity, for example, should not be seen as simply a women’s issue, which is why the PwC Women’s group had been renamed PwC Gender Balance and the firm runs a GLEE (gays, lesbians and everyone else) club. “Our events are on interesting topics, and when we promote them it’s not necessarily obvious it’s an LGBT event, for example,” said Churchman, who added that this increased participation in networks.

Nishma Robb, head of ads marketing at Google and chair of Women@Google, said the group had “become very central to the business agenda… to demonstrate our ambition to create an inclusive culture at Google”. It helped push gender issues up the organisational agenda, including the fact that women weren’t ‘raising their hands’ for promotion because of the prevailing performance management culture, and the realisation that products built with men-only teams of engineers “just weren’t that great. We need diverse teams to do better as a business.”

Churchman added: “We went through a period of feeling like our networks were working against us – like they were a mini trade union – but we have moved beyond that. And where people might once have thought the women’s network was some sort of knitting circle, they can now see that it’s done some really powerful work.”

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