Levi’s European LGBTQ+ and ally employee network started as an email and has evolved into a collective of about 160 members, of which 70 per cent are allies © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The prevalence of employee resource groups such as women’s networks and LGBT+ groups has risen in recent years as workers convene in an effort to change company culture.

Yet beyond initial goals to address workplace inequality and provide a safe space for sharing ideas, the focus is shifting towards how these ERGs can be used to help businesses evolve.

Indeed, research published this month by Accenture, the consultancy, suggests that if all UK companies improved inclusivity by 10 per cent, the resulting innovation could increase GDP by up to 1.5 per cent each year. 

Katja Ploner, corporate diversity and inclusion adviser at German manufacturer Siemens and co-founder of Grow2Glow, its employee group for women, notes a shift. 

Grow2Glow was founded in 2016 by eight women — all experienced coaches — to offer every woman at Siemens three free coaching sessions. The network soon expanded globally, and men also joined as coaches.

“It’s simply wonderful to see how much can happen if people get the opportunity to act in a self-organised and purpose-driven manner,” Ms Ploner says.

Between September 2019 and August this year, Siemens — which places 350th on the FT-Statista Diversity Leaders ranking of 850 companies in Europe — ran a leadership programme with the aim of boosting gender diversity in senior management.

Two cohorts of 12 people were selected from various business functions across its European operations. The result was that a quarter of them were added to the succession pipeline in various parts of the business, according to a case study published in September by the European Round Table for Industry, a forum for leaders of multinational companies in Europe.

Now, Ms Ploner says, rather than the company simply asking what it can do to help minority groups, “the leading question is ‘what can minority networks do for Siemens?’.”

Standard Chartered, a global bank with 85,000 employees, and which ranks 190th on the FT-Statista list, says a more diverse workforce helps to attract talent, and stimulate fresh ideas and innovation. 

Katja Ploner
‘The leading question is, what can minority networks do for Siemens?’ — Katja Ploner, corporate diversity and inclusion adviser at German manufacturer Siemens

The bank has a variety of employee networks and has made other commitments to diversity. It tracks inclusion through an index, which includes criteria such as access to tools to do work and feeling safe to express views. The score has increased from 77 per cent to 82 per cent since the index started in 2018, the company says. 

Samantha Neath, sales account manager and ERG lead at BAE Systems, the defence company, agrees there has been significant change in the past 18 months.

She observes that, previously, the networks at BAE “were quite disparate”. But the company has developed a framework that provides each employee group with a senior-level sponsor who can help drive their agenda.

BAE aims to develop ERGs further into business resource groups, “so the focus is more about supporting the business and helping the business to become more inclusive”, Ms Neath says. 

Peter Lewin, senior director of strategy and marketplace insights for Europe at Levi Strauss, the clothing company with European headquarters in Belgium — which ranks 805th on the Diversity Leaders list — says it is important that ERGs in different regions have the autonomy to address the issues that affect them. 

Unlabeled, Levi’s European LGBTQ+ and ally employee network, started “very organically” as an email from Mr Lewin looking for people who wanted to help him build it. The group has since evolved into a “confident” collective with about 160 members, he says. Thirty per cent of members are LGBTQ+, while 70 per cent are allies.

Not everyone agrees diversity committees are effective, however. In a recent column written anonymously for Sifted, an FT sister publication that reports on European tech start-ups, a black queer woman wrote that such networks have become a barrier to creating inclusive workplaces.

Diversity committees are at best “a convening of marginalised people expected to undo the very biased and oppressive practices that they’re subjected to at work”, she wrote — adding that those who run the groups are not provided with the budgets nor emotional support needed to implement initiatives that lead to lasting change.

Yet companies are beginning to respond to calls for more support.

BAE has recognised the time commitment involved and allows ERG co-chairs to dedicate up to 20 per cent of their work time to their roles, while steering group members can commit about 10 per cent. Arthur Schmid, research scientist in Siemens’ corporate technology division and an active member of its Pride ERG, says “activities for our network are naturally treated as work hours”.

Levi’s Mr Lewin empathises with the frustration. Getting an initiative off the ground “takes time and patience . . . it is hard to change hearts and minds overnight”, he says.

He is also an advocate for “untouchable funding” for ERGs so that diversity is less likely to slip off companies’ agendas. “Then no matter what happens with the business you can continue to make progress.”

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