How Employee Resource Groups Can Help Break The Glass Ceiling

Posted: July 21, 2014

It is difficult for a woman to break the glass ceiling alone, but Employee Resource Groups can be a very useful tool for your career. 

“Women can’t do it all,” says Angela Ahrendts, the CEO of Burberry. This seems to be the universal truth at most workplaces today. She is perceived to have too much to juggle around – work, family, children, domestic woes and the list goes on. How can she focus on work when she has so much going?

That she can strike a balance is a thought alien to most. “Ha! Indeed! It’s all good to say but impossible to do,” goes the thought and the idea gets entrenched further into corporate cultures. Hence gets formed the belief that women can’t lead. They cannot go beyond upper middle management levels to become leaders who will carry their team up the ladder with them. They cannot break the barriers that lie around them or above them.

Or so we think…thus making the proverbial glass ceiling a reality.

Why the glass ceiling exists

There is a problem no doubt. But is it as big as we make it to be? The answer to that could be either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ depending on which industry we belong to and the company specific culture we grow in.

However, on the whole it remains a fact that the number of women we see at the top is abysmal. Whether we like it or not, gender bias is a seed deeply sown within most organizations and the reasons for these are multi-fold

  • External causes – such as society. Despite being highly educated, pursuing further training or Education for leadership roles is not encouraged for women. Post marriage, personal obligations are often instrumental in de-prioritizing such learning
  • Organizational barriers – male dominated work places (esp. in industries such as Manufacturing and Banking/Finance) often impede the growth of women. Cultures that do not provide equal training and mentoring opportunities tend to see fewer women climbing up the rungs
  • Lack of support – This is probably the most common form of barrier. When a woman shows the inclination and potential to take on a larger role, she is often constrained by the lack of support and enabling not only from her male colleagues but sometimes by her female co-workers as well
  • The wrong solutions – Most organizations that realize that a change needs to be brought about, attack it with quick-fix solutions such as gender diversity based hiring drives which usually are unplanned and add to the problem rather than resolve it. Similarly, women try to resolve the problem by not speaking up and compromising on everything lest they be perceived as bossy or aggressive.
  • Growth indicators – Women can grow only based on performance while men do so based on potential. The ideal indicator for both is performance as well as potential. The number of organizations which realize this are unfortunately far too less in number.

What worsens this problem is the guilt that is many a times forced upon women. A female colleague of mine was to travel for a few weeks to the U.K, and the first reaction one of our male colleagues had when she disclosed the news was, “Oh that’s nice, but what about your kids? Who will look after them?” Her happiness was instantly dampened and she almost had her trip cancelled.

While these causes might seem daunting, they are as impregnable as we make them to be. More often than not, we get overwhelmed and we step back rather than stay put and give it our best fight. If we aren’t capable of doing that, why would anyone believe that we are ready to take on leadership roles?

How Employee Resource Groups help

There are many ways in which we can make the glass ceiling disappear – what we choose to pick and adapt to depends on our individual characteristics and the specific organizational behaviour we have to deal with. But regardless of the industry, one of the most effective ways to enable progress for oneself is by participating in Employee Resource groups (ERGs)

ERGs are groups created within the organization to primarily generate conversation, introspection, ideation and progressive discussion. However the potential of this group can be such that it can help create leaders especially among women. These groups are usually gender neutral but many companies today are looking at developing women specific ERGs as well.

While this can raise concerns on reverse discrimination and darken those invisible lines that divide based on gender today, on the whole, ERGs can help provide a platform to develop leadership qualities in women and assist them in shedding their inhibitions with a few effective methods:

Connect – One of the biggest issues we have is that we think we are alone in the problems we face whereas the truth is that there are many like us out there across departments and business units. Being able to interact with women from across the organization will not only make you feel better but their support will give you the strength that you didn’t know existed within you.

Voice out – Speak up about the problems you face and the inhibitions you have with the members of this group. Speaking to an HR manager from IBM, I realized how useful these gatherings can be for women to dismiss some of the notions they have been living with. For e.g. some women assume that they cannot do better at the workplace because they are constantly told their children are their primary responsibility. Similarly many women shy away from taking up tasks because it is ingrained into their minds that certain tasks are to be done by males. Voicing out these feelings will help get rid of such views you might be carrying.

Brainstorm – Strength accompanies Unity. Once you get together with other women, you can together brainstorm and solve each other’s problems. The ideation will give you inputs on how to handle your situation more effectively. Since such groups will also include women in senior management roles, it will give you an insight into how they climbed the ladder.

Implement – There is no point in being a part of a group that helps you channelize your career if you do not implement the outcome. Depending on how the inputs you get help, you can always turn back to your group to discuss and become more effective.

At some point, having a gender neutral ERG can also prove beneficial as it becomes more inclusive, helps lighten the lines of division and makes men understand the problems women face, learn from them and try and bring about a change.

Many believe that the biggest impediment for a woman to grow are women themselves – what they do not realize is that most women are handling their problems all alone and are too busy being bogged down by the pressures they face to be able to look up and help others.

If a platform like an ERG exists for them, it will help them not only build their networks but also address their concerns and grow together.

Pic credit: doyland (Used under a CC license)

Seeta Bodke is a Business Consultant and Senior Manager from the IT sector. After spending

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