Many workplace observers would have seen coverage of Virgin Atlantic’s 5 March announcement that it is no longer compulsory for female cabin crew to wear makeup. But just a couple of days later, further developments on the firm’s approach to gender slipped out pretty much under the radar.
In a 7 March blog post,  the airline announced that 2019 would be a “big year” for its employee group the Scarlet Network, which aims to boost the career prospects of female staff. The blog noted that, in the coming months, the group – which has grown from 30 members to 600 in just three years – will unveil a major brand partnership “to drive real change in young girls and perceptions of their career opportunities”.
Virgin Atlantic head of category Caz Johnson – who co-founded Scarlet Network with capacity control manager Dawn Horrod – says of the group’s purpose: “We’ve found that a lot of women here are stuck with self-limiting beliefs and a lack of confidence. The network can help people feel fulfilled in their role, and able to tap into another source of support and development. Really it’s about positioning us all to be at our best as much as possible.”
Johnson partly credits the network’s supportive environment for helping her to achieve a recent promotion. “Working in finance,” she explains, “I was constrained by a particular outlook and mindset. The network in Scarlet allows you to find different perspectives from around the business. To shift mindsets.”
This year, the blog notes, the network’s structure will be bolstered via the introduction of a 10-strong committee to enhance the group’s organisation and planning. Horrod adds: “Each committee member has an area of responsibility. The idea is that this can develop and showcase their potential, demonstrate leadership behaviours, have something useful to put on their CVs and get a jump up from where they are today to where they want to get to, hopefully getting them in a good place for their next promotion or role.”
In a blog of October last year,  insurance firm Hiscox revealed that, in just a year, its number of employee networks has rocketed from one to eight. The firm’s diversity and inclusion head Hasreen Chadha explained: “Those who get involved with employee networks have access to more networking and developmental opportunities that they might not otherwise get, as well as gaining from other benefits such as mentorship and the chance to get involved in volunteering and community service initiatives. In turn, the business gains from a workforce more engaged, motivated and reflective of the customers and communities it is trying to serve.”
However, there are signs that firms are not properly measuring the effects of their internal networks. A recent Strategy+Business article on US employee resource groups (ERGs)  points out: “even though the number of ERGs has taken off, companies seldom assess these groups’ success”. It adds: “It’s rare for a popular corporate mainstay to go unmeasured, but the value of ERGs is notoriously difficult to quantify. And without data, leaders may question whether it makes sense to actively support the ERGs in their organisation.”
What should organisations do to ensure that their women’s networks are operating at maximum effectiveness for those who rely on them?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Women’s networks have been around since at least the 1980s, and I myself have been involved with such groups at major corporates – for example, BT and 3M. I was also attached to another one that supported women in the City. As the Strategy+Business piece points out, evidence for how successful these networks are is rather thin on the ground. If, after three decades or so, we’re still scratching around for signs of the impact they’ve made, then perhaps that indicates there isn’t one that can be captured in hard data.”
She explains: “One of the problems with networks of this type is where you have women bonding together with other women on the issue of underrepresentation. Renowned business scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter  wrote about this habit extensively: if you, as a member of a social group lacking in empowerment, are aligning yourself with other people in the same boat, then as a whole, your network is unlikely to broaden its access. Common sense suggests that, if you want to make progress in any organisation where males occupy the majority of senior posts, it’s actually men you need to network with.
“Our companion Simone Roche – founder and CEO of Northern Power Women  – takes a similar view. She will always argue that you must include men in any change-making initiative, because they’re still the people who are in the position to make things happen. Or, if your focus happens to be unprofessional behaviours, to stop them happening.”
Cooper notes: “Women’s networks are great for shining a light on specific pain points – and it’s certainly an uplift to be in the company of people who share your barriers and constraints. However, I am a little concerned that these networks often make underrepresentation a women’s problem. It’s not women who need to take up their case and champion it. It’s organisations who need to recognise the benefits of improving female inclusivity in the workforce – for which there’s a powerful business case.”
She adds: “At the same time, this whole subject area chimes with the recent International Women’s Day webinar I held with Diverse Matters founder Yasmin Sheik. Around 10 years ago, Yasmin suddenly became a wheelchair user – and she was the only disabled person she knew. Her first reaction was that she didn’t want to join networks of disabled people. But when at last she did join, she was swept up in the feeling of, ‘Yes! They get it.’ So there is absolutely a place for these networks. But they must be open and externally focused, rather than closed-off and inward-looking.”
Image of Virgin Atlantic jet courtesy of NextNewMedia, via Shutterstock