Insights on building women’s networks

networks professional services support Jan 22, 2019
 By Madiha Sajid

One of WHEN’s founding principles is to support women across the higher education sector through bringing them together. And one of the most effective ways we can think of doing that, is by supporting our members in their existing university women’s networks and where those don’t exist, by supporting our members to establish and effectively run them.

Our next WHEN face-to-face event will be our Network of Networks event in January (the first meeting of all women involved in leading networks for women in their own universities).

To launch this idea and promote discussion amongst our members, we hosted our first webinar focusing on building women’s networks in universities, hearing from members of successful networks from across the UK.

The panel consisted of:

  • Dr Leanne Freeman and Aimee Jones from Cardiff Metropolitan Women’s Staff Network, chair and vice chair
  • Professor Candy Rowe from NU Women (Newcastle University’s women’s network), steering group member and former chair from 2014-2016
  • Jane Van de Ban, from Birkbeck Astrea, events officer and network founder

The panel discussion was facilitated by WHEN’s Operations & Development manager Clare Hewitt who asked the panel about their experiences of setting up women’s networks.

For those of you who weren’t able to attend, we bring you the key questions and answers here:

1.What are the key things to consider when setting up a new network?

Professor Candy Rowe kicked off the discussion by explaining the set up of her network NU Women (Newcastle University Women).

The first and most important element of a successful network is to ask members what they want from the network. Identifying a gap is a key step towards establishing a purposeful network.

Secondly, institutional buy-in and strategic support are extremely important as it helps the organisation to achieve its strategic aims (e.g. Athena Swan awards). Another important factor highlighted by Leanne and Aimee (Cardiff Metropolitan Women’s Staff Network) was to establish a committee/working group to set up the network. It requires time and devotion which can become challenging amidst our (already) heavy workloads. Hence, drawing on the expertise of colleagues/volunteers from across the university is very useful.

Finally, it is important to have regular communication and/or regular events so not to lose momentum.

2. How can you make a business case for your network to get buy in and funding from your organisation?

Jane from Birkbeck Astrea explained how they used the results of the staff survey to argue the need for establishing a women’s only network. They noted that professional development for professional staff was virtually non-existent, particularly at the lower grades; and their proposed network would fill a gap in provision. So they clearly identified how this would provide a service that wasn’t currently offered.

They built a business case which highlighted the benefits of the network to the institution, and presented it to the Head of Administration. This was echoed by Candy whose business case included the purpose of the network and why it would benefit the university’s strategic goals including competitor universities having similar networks.

All three networks have effectively received some funding from strategic budgets and/or from Equality and Diversity teams for their respective networks.

3. What challenges have you experienced in starting or building your networks and how did you overcome them?

One of the most common challenges faced by all three networks was a ‘bumpy start’ due to unrealistic expectations, few activities, not enough momentum and a small steering committee. Lack of time management can be another mistake easily made during the initial period of setting up a network. Additionally, Jane from Birkbeck Astrea also talked about experiencing push-back from some men who felt that the network was ‘sexist’ and advantaged women over men.

Leanne and Amy had also heard similar comments from male colleagues. In both cases, they responded by saying that their networks provide a platform for women to learn from each other and also offered to support them if they wanted to set up their own network (no takers yet though!). Candy also suggested rebuilding the steering group (if the need arises) by finding people who are committed and not to be afraid to ask them to take on tasks. That’s what they are there for!

4. What advice do you have for participants who want to reinvigorate their networks – what action can they take?

The best advice is to go back to basics – see what women/target group actually want and then deliver it! You can run an event around this, ask another network lead to come and speak to inspire people.

Secondly, talk to the institution about the aims of the network and how they can support you – that might be for the whole network (funding for activities or some admin/IT support), or for you (e.g. leadership training to help you set-up and run the network). It is also useful to ask members for ideas about activities and areas of interests throughout the process.

5. What has been the highlight for you so far in your network?

Setting up and leading a network is a very rewarding process. Candy’s network (NU Women) was nominated for a national staff award earlier this year and she said that ‘’knowing that you’re making a difference is the highlight for me’’. Asking for feedback on events and activities, and finding out the impact that you are having on the lives and careers of colleagues is immensely rewarding. Leanne and Aimee valued the opportunity to meet and work with colleagues from across the institution.

Finally, Jane’s highlight was having the opportunity to work with a great group of facilitators and the gratitude of their members for the opportunities that the network provides to them.

The webinar generated many useful questions from our audience which our panel kindly answered by giving practical suggestions such as having regular communications via newsletters and annual reports; having a budget for events, stationery and hospitality; and finally, gathering feedback on events so to show impact. Huge thanks to our great panellists and to our energetic audience!