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> CSR can contribute to greater gender equality in the workplace through improved opportunities for networking Thursday, 6th March 2014

CSR can contribute to greater gender equality in the workplace through improved opportunities for networking.

It’s a bold statement that might seem like an empty promise.  But when you really think about it and examine the way power structures work, it’s not.  The – very unfortunate – reality that we live in is that many high paying and influential professions like finance, law, and politics are still wildly unequal in regards to gender, especially at the top.  And it’s a well-known adage that people tend to hire people who remind them of themselves, which only perpetuates the problem.  This is one way in which institutional racism operates for example.  Another common refrain is that people do business with people – meaning personal relationships are also vital in developing new opportunities.  And we all know opportunities don’t come about just through the jobs section of the local newspaper; opportunities are also found, crucially, through networks, and a key feature of networks is that they are based on shared interests. 

So how do people get to know each other, to learn about their shared interests and see who ‘reminds them of themselves’ in a large company?  Daily interactions in the office are one thing, but people who work together (whether in the same company or within the same sector) don’t just get to know each other at work – they also get to know each other at industry events, while chatting in a taxi on the way to a meeting, or after work at the pub.  And with more men at the top – only 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs for example — the higher up the ladder you go, the more male dominated the opportunities are for networking both in and outside of the office.  Whether it’s golf, the pub, or a formal networking dinner, it can feel like an ‘old boys’ club’ when an overwhelming and consistent majority of the people there are men.  Women may not be explicitly excluded from these events, but they don’t necessarily foster a welcoming or inclusive environment either. (A friend has told me stories about her sales team’s visits to strip clubs after conferences - clients are invited, so that even a lap dance can be expensed to the company.)  This puts women at a real disadvantage, as it’s so often through these informal networks that we find commonalities and form the relationships that can lead to professional opportunities, and ultimately, professional success.

How does employee volunteering factor in?  Volunteering together offers a more inclusive opportunity to get to know your colleagues and clients.  By engaging in volunteering activities together at work, you get to see another side of your colleagues and connect with them on a different level – which, ideally, will lead you to see more of the things you have in common.  Whether it’s finding out you have kids the same age or a shared love of DIY, doing something different with your team, colleagues, and clients can be a fantastic way to learn more about who your colleagues are and what skills they have beyond the ones they use at work. 

While this argument applies across the board in virtually every sector*, it’s especially important in those that remain male dominated.  A well-rounded CSR programme that includes employee volunteering (and furthermore, engaging clients in employee volunteering opportunities) can give women, who are often directly or indirectly excluded from other types of networking, another avenue to develop the professional relationships that are key to creating new opportunities.  Employers are increasingly aware of this and many actively create policies and search for opportunities to support employee volunteering.  In doing so, they help ensure that they are providing opportunities for people to get to know each other and to develop a professional relationship outside of other, less inclusive, forms of networking.  Making those links with influential players – both internally and externally to one’s company – can have a fantastic, positive effect on one’s career.  Lawyers in Schools participants CMS Cameron McKenna are proof of this: they have found that the improved relationships they developed through participating in volunteering together with a client led to more business for the firm.

To sum up: expanding your activities expands your networks, which in turn expands the number and type of opportunities that you are exposed to.  By offering more opportunities for men and women at all levels of seniority to interact and find common interests, employers can help to ensure that networks go beyond ‘old boys’ clubs’ to be more inclusive and more diverse.  At first glance, participating in CSR activities may not radically change your career, but it might give you the opportunity to chat to a senior level executive about something you have in common – and in the long run, that just might.  

 

*I focus on women in honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th but recognize that this argument can be made for many under-represented groups - which is all the more reason to get involved!