The female factor: Why businesses need women’s networks

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images
We spoke to Michiel Verhoeven and Lyndsey Spergin from SAP UK to discuss their business women network and why other companies should follow suit

Let’s start with the facts: women account for 47.7% of the global workforce, yet only 27.1% of women are managers and leaders, according to Women in the Workforce Statistics 2022, from TeamStage. 

What’s more, 42% of women feel that they have been discriminated against at work because of their gender, and globally, the gender pay gap is growing, with women earning 22% less in monthly wages. 

Now, imagine you had a space at your workplace to express your ideas, ambitions and challenges. A safe space, occupied by women supporting each other, sharing advice and inspirational stories. If this sounds like something that would benefit you, then perhaps you should look into launching a women’s network

What are women’s networks?

In a nutshell, women’s networks are spaces that encourage women, and anyone who supports women, to meet regularly and discuss meaningful topics while driving diversity, and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. 

“After seeing the diversity at SAP, I wanted to create a programme to bond together the women, to provide inspiring role models and to create an inclusive environment,” says Lyndsey Spurgin, Vice President of Global Marketing Programs at SAP. “The Business Women’s Network (BWN) very quickly took off, as we found that there were a lot of women throughout SAP who wanted to join. Now, we’re a really vibrant network group, with over 15,000 active members and 90 chapters at SAP, globally.”

Ultimately, women’s networks connect groups across different departments within a company, providing a platform for women to share experiences and ideas with the aim of setting the members up for success. It’s also a place where individuals can come together to brainstorm ways to achieve D&I initiatives, helping businesses to become more inclusive. 

Through having a BWN at SAP, the company has been able to unite women together, providing them with the opportunity to discuss various challenges, needs, and aspirations,” Michiel Verhoeven, Managing Director of SAP UK & Ireland adds.

“But ultimately, BWN brings together a sincere group of other people – not just women,” he continues. “SAP’s BWN welcomes anyone who wants to support women, including those from the male community, as well as from our external community and customers, such as Burberry, Microsoft and Barclays.”

What makes a successful women’s network?

Start off by asking yourself and other passionate individuals hoping to join the network: “What do we want to achieve?”. From here, you’ll be able to construct a better understanding of what needs to be gained from the network, and how you can go about achieving it. For example, individuals may be looking for a space to drive cultural change, or to discuss progression opportunities.

Lyndsey says: “It’s important to remember that women’s networks are usually run by volunteer teams, so SAP’s BWN exists simply because we’re passionate about diversity and inclusion. 

“But BWNs should not just be seen as a gesture; they are long-term projects aiming to build diversity – at SAP, we focus on the three R’s: recruitment, retention and role models. 

“Firstly, we make sure we have diverse candidates on our shortlist when recruiting new staff. We then focus on retaining staff by looking at policies from an HR perspective, and finally, we ensure that we involve role models to inspire others by sharing their stories.”

Another way to ensure that your women’s network remains fun, informative and educational, is by running regular events. Of course, this can span joining events virtually to connect with other events or speakers, or hosting your own.

“We run various events throughout the year to inspire anyone who identifies as a woman, and of course the men that support them,” Lyndsey says. “Here at SAP, we try to make each event as inclusive as possible, so our members not only enjoy the sessions, but we’re spreading the word on what we do, too. 

“We’ve hosted topics on issues such as unconscious bias, trying to ensure that they appeal to employees at all stages of their careers. We've had some amazing speakers, including Ruby Wax and Gina Martin, who spoke about the upskirting law. We also had a speaker who shared their battle with cancer – I had numerous people tell me that it gave them hope, or even just an opportunity to cry about something. It was truly inspirational.”

How can women’s network’s encourage change?

Not only do women’s networks empower individuals through the promotion of self-growth, but they can also bring cultural changes to companies by challenging policies and creating positive, more inclusive work environments. 

“The BWN has enabled us to create great change within SAP,” Lyndsey says. “One policy change that I’m particularly proud of is the Coercion Control and Domestic Abuse policy, which we created with HR to help employees should they be in those circumstances. We’re all about making real change, not just cultural changes, to make SAP a better place to work.”

Despite what you may think, women’s networks aren’t limited to focusing on internal growth – many businesses use it as an opportunity to reach out and help the wider community. Through small-scale projects such as litter picks and charity fundraisers, as well as global initiatives such as sponsoring other women and providing essential resources for schools, women’s networks are about to bring change to each corner of the globe.

“We’re part of a charity called Global Give Back Circle,” Lyndsey says. “Through this, we sponsor two young women in Kenya to ensure their university tuition fees, accommodation and resources are paid for. Both women are 19 years old and the first in their family to go to university. We really want to make sure that we can support them all the way through their education to give them a really good start.” 

The growth of women’s networks

As our opening statistics show, women still have a long journey ahead before true, meaningful equality is reached, but although progress is slow, it’s progress nonetheless. 

Over recent years, we’ve seen steady growth in the number of women uniting to create networks; however, the more women that stand up and demand equality (backed by every other group in society, of course) the sooner this progression will accelerate. 

Michiel concludes: “What makes women’s networks so successful is the fact that they’re movements that generate change. People recognise that it is a continuous initiative worth participating in and belonging to.

“But as our BWN is inclusive to male and non-binary communities, we’re able to see the great impact it has on the wider company. I’ve started to see many more men wanting to sponsor women now in their careers, which is probably a side effect of women’s networks that people didn't expect. So to me, these aspects show that women’s networks matter and they really do promote change.” 

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