Sometimes, it is not clear whether a company is referring to a women’s initiative such as forming a women’s network, or whether it is part of a broader gender balancing program aimed at balancing the ratio of men and women throughout the business. It is important from the outset to be clear about which it is. Ideally, any company will see this as a gender balance program of relevance to men as well as women. This is clearly the direction to take it in. But anyone asked to lead a gender initiative initiative needs to understand the broader context before agreeing to take it on.

My friend Anne (not her real name) is a partner in the London office of a global law firm. After 20 years in the profession, she was asked to spearhead the firm’s new women’s initiative in London. A number of thoughts occurred to her simultaneously – contradictory and yet valid reactions – ranging from “It’s about time!” to “I don’t want to get labeled as the office feminist” to “I don’t have time, and are they really serious about it anyway?”

As the adage goes, you are not responsible for the first thoughts that go through your mind, but you are responsible for what you do with them.

Should you take on the challenge?

Here are some issues to consider:

  • What top management support is there? Who is championing this initiative?
  • Is this viewed as a strategic imperative for the firm, or is this just about “ticking the box” or “fixing the women”? What is the organization’s overall goal and how will success be measured? While it is important to help women help themselves and each other, the mindset across the organization toward diversity and its business benefits is key to success.
  • Should it be led by a male senior manager to ensure the initiative is not sidelined as a ‘women’s issue’? Or, have they chosen you irrespective of your gender because you possess special leadership skills and internal credibility that uniquely qualify you for the role?
  • What junior support will you have? Do you have freedom to set up a team, structure and procedures as you see fit?
  • Have you been chosen as a role model? Is this an opportunity to lead by example showing, both men and women, how women can head up an initiative effectively even in a tricky setting?

Taking on the challenge

Here are some tips if you decide to go ahead:

  • Agree the scope of the initiative upfront: are you asked simply to establish a women’s network, or a broader set of programs to attract, train and retain women across the organization? Is this envisioned as a multi-stage initiative with further activities to be added in the future? Having agreed the scope, draw up a ‘business plan’ with your sponsor’s approval to be endorsed by top management.
  • Reach out beyond your organization to external audiences, and gain further visibility and business opportunities for yourself, your participants and also for your business. Learn from others’ experiences as you determine the range of your activities and the best approach to take. Establish a constructive approach and philosophy from the start.
  • Focus on generating business leads and connections as well as building a support network. Ensure the initiative is not abused or used as a license for complaining.
  • Ensure a close working link with your sponsor with the opportunity to report back and enlist support on an ongoing basis. Establish a feedback loop so that organisational change and learning can take place.
  • Most women will see the benefit and experience the energy from being part of the initiative, but for many, addressing the potential for a “male backlash” is an important consideration.
  • Make an effort to engage the men as well, especially where bridges can be built and endorsement can be found.
  • Strive to be transparent since the unknown (and therefore mysterious) tends to arouse suspicion and misplaced ill will. Report back to the general audience with appropriate frequency.
  • Open up fora to all employees, where appropriate, for example when speakers are coming in to talk about business or general career topics, to further demystify the subject.
  • Remember that some people will complain no matter what, so do what you can to meet the complaints and send the rest of them to speak to your senior sponsor.

Anne has taken on the mantle to lead the women’s initiative at her firm, and she is making a real difference. Men and women in her firm are gaining invaluable insights and, by hosting events with female clients, the initiative has led to new business opportunities for the firm. Who says you can’t have win-win?