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By Sherri Richards, Published December 05 2013

Women at work: Businesses provide internal networking, leadership groups to inspire female employees

Fargo - As a woman in an engineering field, Heather Jarski says she’s experienced nagging thoughts and insecurities.

Through WomenREACH, an employee resource group at John Deere Electronic Solutions, she’s heard those feelings verbalized. Monthly speakers, networking events and service opportunities help her develop personally and professionally.

She says the group, open to all salaried women, is an example of John Deere investing in its employees.

“They give us the tools and the time to get to know everybody and to develop ourselves,” says Jarski, lab manager for the Advanced Tech group.

Several companies, particularly those in high-tech fields, offer internal women’s networking or leadership groups.

John Deere’s local group, one of 16 worldwide, started in April 2012. Women @ Microsoft started on the Fargo campus about 10 years ago.

At both companies, women are in the minority among the ranks, and employees are spread across multi-building campuses.

Both internal women’s groups exist to help employees reach their potential, increase engagement and promote diversity.

“The power of diversity is rooted in the power of different viewpoints,” says Tom Budan, general manager of John Deere Electronic Solutions and an executive sponsor of WomenREACH. “Different perspective is healthy.”

A small business example: 100-employee Sundog offers Brand New Day, quarterly breakfast sessions featuring women speakers. The Fargo-based marketing and technology company is now starting a “Lean In” circle, based on Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, as an offshoot.

“It’s one thing to say you support women,” says Jodi Heilman, who leads Sundog’s creative department. “It’s another to do something about it.”

ENGAGED, ALIGNED

While any company would say its people are its competitive advantage, Budan says John Deere believes “highly aligned and highly engaged people” make the difference.

The networking and development opportunities of WomenREACH are all meant to increase employee engagement, he says. Comments and survey scores indicate the program is doing so.

“People want to develop. People want to grow,” Budan says.

John Deere’s women’s group contains more than 100 members from its Fargo campus and John Deere Seeding Group in Valley City, N.D. In total, the two locations have more than 1,000 salaried and wage workers.

WomenREACH events have included webinars, lunch and learn sessions, a golf outing and randomly assigned small groups for networking over lunch or coffee.

Members also toured the Valley City plant. Amanda Wyland, an electronic design engineer and WomenREACH committee member, excitedly pointed out electronic components that had been developed in Fargo on the seeders.

Wyland says the group’s networking events bring a human connection that can wane on a large campus. It also allows her to learn from the challenges of others.

“Sometimes in the busy work life madness, it’s hard to take time out to do career development,” Wyland says.

FOSTERING WOMEN

Alice Newsam, a software engineer at Microsoft, remembers the first organizational meeting of Fargo’s Women @ Microsoft a decade ago. She says many of the goals discussed then – networking, mentoring, attracting women to tech fields – have carried through to today.

“In the tech industry, there’s always been this need to foster women as a diverse group and keep them engaged,” Newsam says.

The Fargo group has quarterly gatherings, such as panel discussions or ice cream socials, and sponsors a women’s conference every other year. Online resources include a reading list and website suggestions.

It also reaches out into the community, through a holiday food drive, Habitat for Humanity and its annual DigiGirlz High Tech Camp. It offers scholarships for young women pursuing a technology-related degree.

Newsam says the local group’s mailing list includes a few hundred names. All its events are meant for the broader campus, currently numbering 834 employees, of which 258 are women.

“Women helping women is great, but women helping men understand the women’s perspective of what we can offer is amazing,” Newsam says.

A NEW DAY

When Heilman took helm of the creative department at Sundog, she was the only female team leader. She wanted to start a program that would create a network of women and allow for mentoring.

Brand New Day, a women’s leadership initiative, started two years ago.

Providing networking and professional development internally gives employees the time and exposure to participate, Heilman says.

The hourlong breakfast sessions four times a year bring in women from around the region to share their stories, such as a professor, a stay-at-home mom and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

Heilman says it’s important for women to hear from other women and recognize themselves in those stories.

Brand New Day is now looking to expand to national speakers, says Bobbiann Froemke, senior client director.

Froemke says she thinks women’s networking groups empower, support and give confidence to employees.

“Having confidence in yourself means you can give confidence to others,” she says. “When you recognize your strengths, it’s easier to recognize others’.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

How to help

An article in Women For Hire, a women’s and diversity career recruitment specialist magazine, offers these suggestions for starting an internal women’s network in a corporate environment:

• Make it about the business. Women don’t want to sign up for or be perceived as needing a support group. Focus on all topics related to effective work practices. Articulate its role in maintaining the company’s competitive advantage.

• Find an executive champion. A visible executive sponsor is an important signal of the viability of the organization. The sponsor can help identify real business needs that the group can help tackle.

• It’s not competition, it’s cooperation. It’s not about being better than men. It’s about being better women. Appreciate men and women have a different set of skills to bring to the table. Enlist men to help in the development process.

• Engage your early adopters. Identify those who take part early, and enlist them to participate, evangelize or even run events. Encourage these employees to identify the early adopters in their own groups. Employ this strategy one member at a time until you have more active participants than passive ones.

• Think big, start small. Your ultimate aim may be to change company culture, or even national culture, but start small and celebrate your wins.

Source: www.womenforhire.com