04 September 2019

Women & Networks: Employee Resource Groups – Taking A Networked Perspective

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  • In the course of our research, we identified both4 common practices to advance women
  • These approaches consisted of some of the mainstays in diversity and inclusion efforts
  • This article will focus on one of the common approaches, employee resource groups (ERGs)

ERGs for women are incredibly popular, despite some of the debate around their utility.1 The initial idea, which was to create a shared space for women,2 has morphed in some organizations into a focus on gender as an inclusive category. However, regardless of the focus of these ERGS, almost every organization we spoke to indicated difficulty in appropriately and effectively including men in the ERG (see our callout, “The role of men in ERGs,” for more information).

Given our understanding of how networks work and how they differ by gender, the women-majority composition of women-focused ERGs can create some real challenges when using these groups to help women advance. For example, if the individuals within an ERG are primarily lower-level employees, these groups are less likely to play a large role in helping women make the connections necessary to rise within their organizations. Further, if the activities within the ERG do not enable members to form meaningful connections, those activities could take up time that individuals could spend on higher-value projects or on other activities that form those connections.

That said, ERGs have great potential to help women advance if designed, executed, and supported appropriately. In fact, if they have the right components, we think that they can be one of the most powerful network-related levers for helping women advance. We’ve summarized the most critical components, highlighting how they intersect with the four foundational principles, and listed them here:

  1. Create personal, meaningful sub-groups that provide leadership opportunities
  2. Encourage and manage toward a diverse ERG
  3. Offer resources to support women becoming energizers

1. Create personal, meaningful sub-groups that provide leadership opportunities

ERGs can provide women with an opportunity to be central within a network, which can be especially important for women who are not able to do this (for whatever reason) in their day job. To enable this, ERGs need to offer a wide range of meaningful leadership opportunities that allow women to build a strong network with other ERG members. At the same time, ERGs need to enable women to develop a strong inner circle of women (this is an area where ERGs have traditionally shone, given their large composition of women). It’s critical to make sure that the leadership opportunities and the connections are meaningful.

There are many ways to do this such as creating subgroups or subcommittees focused on specific topics of interest or concern to the ERG, which provide women with opportunities to take on various leadership roles. In some organizations, these groups are subcommittees of the larger ERG leadership structure.

One of the more novel types of subgroups are Lean-In Circles, which are small, intimate, member-driven groups (usually 8 – 12 individuals) that meet regularly to offer mentorship and advice to navigate roles and careers and engage in shared learning and development. These circles can allow women to both serve as leaders (network centrality) and build a strong inner circle of women. Leanin.org offers technology to help Circle leaders and participants manage their Circles and engage in meaningful activities (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Screenshot of a Lean-In Circle | Source: LeanIn.org, 2019.

Lean-In Circles are clearly not the only way to create these meaningful connections, though. Other smaller types of groups we’ve heard about over the years include corporate book clubs (small groups coming together to discuss career-relevant books and their implications), peer-mentorship groups (small groups coming together to support each other with advice), and group mentorship (small groups coming together to support each other, but with one or more senior individuals who provide the group with guidance). Note that these groups can be offered to both genders while Lean-In Circles are primarily focused on women.

The role of men in ERGs

Unfortunately, only one in five women and one in three men say that the men in their company regularly participate in initiatives to improve gender diversity.3 The inclusion of men as allies or partners in the advancement of women was frequently brought up in our discussions. Organizations cited both practical and philosophical reasons for including men in these efforts. In addition, the mechanisms that are used to encourage and maintain the involvement of male peers differs across organizations. Moving forward, organizations need to see the involvement of men as a critical component to an inclusive workforce and need to explicitly understand how and when they will involve men in ERGs, recognizing that it is not an either/or proposition.

All of these groups and subgroups point to the need to manage the logistics and membership of ERGs. Some organizations, particularly those that are smaller and less organized, have used SharePoint or social media groups (e.g., Facebook for Work or LinkedIn) for ERGs to stay connected and share information.

In addition, there are several different types of technologies that are designed specifically to manage ERGs, which can be useful for making these groups more efficient and effective. Some of the vendors in this space include Affirmity, Diverst, Planbox, and Stratus TMS. For example, Stratus TMS’s ERG Insights product allows individuals to manage events, action plans and budgets, and incorporates measurement tools that track ERG performance and impact (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: Stratus TMS’s ERG Insights Management Capabilities | Source: Stratus TMS, 2019.

2. Encourage and manage toward a diverse ERG

As odd as it may seem to say it (given the topic), we are going to: ERGs need to have a diversity of individuals within them. This means they are comprised of individuals who are diverse on multiple levels, including gender, experience, level and location in the organization as well as the other traditional diversity characteristics. This allows women to build diverse networks, which will connect them to both higher-power and lower-power networks across the organization.

Beyond recruiting individuals from throughout the organization, how can an organization make its ERGs diverse? This challenge actually represents a prime opportunity to leverage technology. There are several ways technology can help organizations understand and increase the diversity of their women-focused ERGs. In the simplest approach, organizations could run analyses of the representation of members of existing ERGs, looking at the diversity of levels, functions, tenure, and genders. For example, this analysis might show a strong representation within the ERG from a specific function (e.g., sales), but much weaker representation from another (e.g., operations). Leaders could then actively recruit new individuals from less represented areas to the ERG to ensure everyone has an opportunity to build a diverse network.

As mentioned above, technology vendors such as Affirmity, Planbox, Stratus TMS, and Diverst help organizations track ERG members (as well as manage the logistics of ERGs). This information could then be combined with existing HRIS data to understand more about who is within the ERG. Some vendors, such as Affirmity (Figure 3), can actually do both the ERG management and representation analysis within one system. The majority of organizations, though, will likely have to combine data from multiple sources, working closely with their people analytics teams.


Figure 3: Affirmity’s ERG management capability | Source: Source: Affirmity, 2019.

Another, more sophisticated, way to use technology to understand the diversity of the individuals – and their networks – within an ERG would be to run a passive or active organizational network analysis (ONA)4 of ERG members. This would allow D&I or ERG leaders to analyze the connectedness of the ERG membership and to identify individuals who could be better connected within the network or those who could take a lead role on bringing more disparate parts of the network together.

There are numerous ONA companies on the market right now, but a few that are specifically focused on using ONA to benefit D&I are Humanyze, Innovisor, Polinode, TrustSphere, and Worklytics (all of which we will discuss in more detail in the sections to come). In the example in Figure 4, you can see how one group is highly fragmented, with the specific connectors being marked in red circles. ONA technology allows organizations to run a simulation of bringing the right people together to increase connectedness and information flow. This type of analysis could be used to help create a more diverse ERG.


Figure 4: Example of a fragmented and potentially more cohesive network map | Source: Innovisor, 2019.

As the world of people analytics continues to advance, organizations will have an ever-increasing amount of data on their hands, which could enable a range of technology capabilities that could help with making ERGs more diverse. For example, in the future, organizations could identify people who are connected to a population relatively under-represented within an ERG and “nudge” them to recruit individuals to the ERG. For example, imagine an ERG is largely comprised of salespeople, and one of the salespeople just moved into marketing. The technology could then nudge that person to invite some of the marketers to the ERG.

Organizations could also recommend different ERG groups and or events to employees based on employee data and/or engagement data. For example, if employee data suggests that a particular talent segment (e.g., women at certain levels/tenures/functions) are less engaged, have lower satisfaction or commitment, or report less development opportunities, the organization could send communications suggesting specific ERG-related activities that might be of interest.

3. Offer resources to support women becoming energizers

The final area of opportunity for ERGs is within the “energizer” principle, where women serve as energizers within their networks, helping encourage new ideas. If organizations take some of the steps mentioned above – creating clear leadership opportunities and smaller subgroups – there are numerous opportunities for women to serve as energizers.
One common approach to enabling women to serve as energizers is through ERG-enabled mentorship and sponsorship activities. In fact, mentorship and sponsorship are so important that we have an entire section devoted to them below. However, we did find this nice example from McGraw-Hill on this topic, so we want to share it here.5

One of the most powerful ways we’ve seen organizations use ERGs is by enabling their members to leverage the specific insights of their community to help deliver a better product or service. A common example of this is Dorito’s Hispanic ERG developing the guacamole Dorito chip, which added significantly to PepsiCo’s bottom line.6 Leaders who champion these efforts within the ERG can take on central roles that expose them to a breadth of individuals and ideas, thus representing a prime opportunity for women to be energizers within their networks.

However, not everyone (man or woman) is born knowing how to help nurture new ideas – in fact, some of us seem to come out of the womb as natural critics. ERGs represent a wonderful space for learning how to develop new ideas and innovations, which can be especially helpful in enabling women to be energizers within their networks. Providing resources that help women understand the steps in an ideation process – how to brainstorm and effectively support ideas without overly criticizing them in their infantile stage – could be helpful. This type of support could come in the form of the approaches many ERGs use today: discussion forms, workshops, training, and job aids.
This is also a space where technology could help. There are some new vendors focused on trying to develop and encourage ideation and innovation. Two of them in particular, Balloonr and Planbox, are specifically designed with diversity and inclusion in mind. These vendors allow individuals to conduct online sessions to generate and manage new ideas (see Figure 5 and Figure 6). Employees can use these technologies to anonymously provide ideas and respond to other’s suggestions. This helps prevent bias against specific ideas based on who provided them. Both technologies could be leveraged in the context of ERGs to not only harness the collective insights of the group but also give women opportunities to lead and serve as idea-encouraging energizers within their networks.


Figure 5: Balloonr’s idea generation platform | Source: Balloonr, 2019.


Figure 6: Planbox Screenshot | Source: Planbox, 2019.

We’ve mentioned a lot of vendors in this section. Figure 7 summarizes those we included. Please note, a list of all vendors included in this report is in the Appendix.


Figure 7: Vendors included in ERG section

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.


  1. For more information regarding the debate around ERGs, read Pitting Inclusion Against Diversity.
  2. ERGs were originally started for that very reason: to provide a space in which individuals who shared a particular characteristic (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation) could come support each other and have a unified voice in the organization.
  3. “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co., 2018. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2018
  4. Organizational network analysis (ONA) is a method for studying communication and social networks within a formal organization. This technique creates statistical and graphical models of the people, tasks, groups, knowledge, and resources of organizational systems. There are two types: active (which rely on surveys) and passive (which rely on “digital exhaust” such as email / chat / Slack communications or other digital data generated by existing technology).
  5. > “A Customized Internal Mentoring Solution,” McGraw-Hill, 2019. https://www.menttium.com/mentoring-client-case-studies/mcgraw-hill/.
  6. See this article for more detail on the Doritos example as well as other examples of this: “Employee Network and Affinity Groups,“ Diversity Practices, https://seramount.com/resources/diversity-primer/.


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