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08 Apr. 2016 | Comments (0)

Join Alison Maitland as she moderates our upcoming TCB webcast on The Do's and Don'ts of Corporate Women's Networks with guests Veronika Hucke and Lisa Kepinski.


These are just a few of the unfortunate employee comments about corporate women’s networks. One employee says: “Unfortunately, there are good initiatives now and then to build it up, but it is not sustainable, it doesn’t seem to get the attention it needs to have.” Another says: “I don’t see any successes since there is no investment.” A third describes her network’s impact as “potentially enormous, but actually irrelevant.” These comments should set alarm bells ringing with CEOs and HR directors.

Women’s networks – also known as affinity or employee resource groups – are typically viewed by businesses as an essential pillar of their efforts to increase the number of women in leadership roles. Yet, new research shows that networks frequently fail to make headway, leading to frustration and disengagement among female employees. We’ll be discussing this research with the authors during our upcoming TCB webcast, The Do’s and Don'ts of Corporate Women’s Networks, on April 20th.

It’s not that networks are worthless per se. They can be very successful, but only if they are supported by serious investment and commitment from the business.

The main problems identified by the international survey, carried out by consultants Veronika Hucke and Lisa Kepinski, are:

  • Lack of funding
  • Lack of recognition for those who lead networks
  • Lack of clear objectives tied to business strategy, and a
  • Lack of measurement of whether networks actually achieve their declared goal of women’s advancement.

As a result, many networks start with high expectations and produce poor outcomes.

Hucke and Kepinski say the majority of networks represented in the survey share the problems associated with “women’s work:” they are invisible, underpaid, under-resourced and under-valued. The network “becomes an example of what it is supposedly trying to rectify in the organization, which limits its ability to drive change”.

Their report, “A Fresh Look at Women Networks”, shows that:

  • Organizational expectations, resources and metrics are generally not aligned, resulting in “unobtainable lofty ambitions” for increased engagement and talent attraction and retention
  • Only one in three respondents say their network is seen as “actively used to support the business” or as “part of our culture”
  • Women are investing large amounts of time running networks for worthy reasons, but over half are receiving no recognition, and 87% say network activities are not part of their appraisals
  • Network leaders who are not recognised, and members who don’t feel good about their network, have lower engagement scores

It seems likely, the authors say, that the considerable time invested by women in activities that are not recognized by the company, together with lower engagement, has a negative impact on women’s advancement.

“It is remarkable that so many companies and networks don’t meet basic requirements that actually are common sense,” Hucke told me. “A lot of networks apparently just get started and ‘hope for the best’. For the first time, our research demonstrates that there can be a hefty cost attached to that approach.”

I believe the fundamental problem with many networks is that they encourage women to tackle issues related to male-designed cultures on their own. This is the wrong way round. It is businesses, and their mainly male leaders, who should ensure that the female talent in which they are investing fulfils its potential – in collaboration with the women concerned. Networks should be business initiatives, not social outreach. Perhaps it is not surprising that some find themselves dismissed as the “coffee club” or “knitting circle”.

What do successful networks do that is different? They are business driven and ensure that women meet senior leaders in the organisation. Network organisers are invited to provide input to the executive management. Their roles are seen as career enhancing. These networks connect women across the company for greater influence and support of women moving up behind them. They are well funded and track progress against targets for improved outcomes for women on things like pay, retention and promotion. Some provide vital insights into new products and services by enlisting the views of female clients.

Networks will only work if they are part of a broader culture change in the organization, a point that the authors underline. “We hope the results will spark a fresh discussion on women networks for the benefit of women, men, and the companies where they work,” says Kepinski. I’m sure they will.

*A Fresh Look at Women Networks can be downloaded from the authors’ websites: and


This blog is an edited version of a column first published by IWE, March 2016

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  • About the Author: Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, Alison supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange™, r…

    Full Bio | More from Alison Maitland


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