Lessons from Leading a Women’s Group

Consider these four steps when launching an employee resource group at your startup.

March 5, 2021



From the start, M13 has encouraged a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) through training, tracking diversity stats, and sharing best practices on psychological safety. So in the spirit of developing more leaders, we decided to create an employee resource group (ERG) for the women at M13.

According to LifeLabs Learning, “[ERGs] can increase employee engagement, productivity, candidate interest, and retention while leading to business innovation and growth.”

Our goal was to create a safe space where we could share personal experiences and learn about one another. We also hoped the group could serve as an opportunity to be action-oriented and discuss how to address challenges that we face both in and outside of work.

Once we made the decision to start the group, we needed to figure out a meeting format. I imagined a version of our #m13girls Slack channel—a safe space for everything from complaining about wearing bras and discussing which face moisturizers we like best to sharing interesting articles (and memes!) about women who inspire us.

Over the past year or so that our women’s group has been running, we’ve tried out different formats and adapted to working remotely during a pandemic. Through trial and error, we’re still figuring out what seems to work best for us.

Below is a quick step-by-step guide on how to start a women’s group (or any ERG) at your company:

Step 1: Choose a fearless leader (or leaders!)

It has been crucial for our women’s group to have one or two women in charge of owning the agenda and maintaining the cadence of the meeting. With how quickly calendars fill up these days (hello, nonstop Zooms!), we’ve found it necessary to have someone leading the charge and making it a priority to get these meetings on the calendar on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.

Having a few leaders can also ensure continuity and momentum in the event one leader moves on from the company. (My colleague Marie and I inherited leading our women’s group from a woman named Scout, who helped us get started in 2019.)

Step 2: Pick a topic for every meeting

We’ve found that having a specific topic can set the tone for an impactful meeting, even if we end up talking about something completely different. It’s helpful to send out relevant articles on the chosen topic in advance of the meeting to make for an even deeper conversation.

Some examples of topics we’ve used include:

  • Covering: Deloitte defines covering as “downplaying certain aspects of one’s identity” in the workplace. Covering can take the form of being appearance-based, affiliation-based, advocacy-based, and association-based. This topic is broad and can easily be extended to a more general DEI group.
  • Negotiation and the wage gap: Women who ask for a raise are twice as likely to get one as women who don’t, according toLeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report. So why aren’t we asking? We covered the still prevalent wage gap (as of 2018, women made 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races), and ended with an action-oriented slideshow of tips for negotiating and getting what you want.
  • Burnout and the effects of quarantine: As the wild year that was 2020 came to a close, we knew we’d be remiss if we didn’t take the time to reflect as a group on the challenges we’ve faced and how we were coping, both personally and professionally. For this topic, we opened the floor for discussion almost immediately after asking, “How has COVID-19 and quarantine affected you?”

    We had follow-on questions prepared, but we ended up spending the full hour on just this question. It was beautiful to see almost every woman in the group, ranging from a new mother to a caretaker of her mother, speak up on how this “new normal” has impacted them. Women who had previously spent time working from home offered helpful tips on staying sane and developing a rhythm of working that incorporates self-care. Making time to trade coping strategies and support made it one of the best meetings to date.

Step 3: End on a positive note

During the hour-long sessions, it can be easy to lose track of time. We’ve found ourselves on more than one occasion having to hurriedly wrap up what are often deep and vulnerable conversations in the last five minutes. We don’t recommend it!

Having a timekeeper and saving at least 15 minutes to wrap up the discussion and agree on action items and key takeaways has been vital in making sure we all leave the meeting feeling a little lighter not heavier. The goal of these conversations is to be candid and conversational, but a little structure is highly recommended.

Step 4: Bring learnings and action items back to the broader team

To make sure we’re still being inclusive and in the spirit of transparency, we’ve made it a point to bring the key takeaways from the women’s group back to the rest of the organization. The last thing we want is for the women’s group or any ERG to create silos across the team. Highlighting what was discussed and any action items has been vital in getting buy-in from Leadership and implementing changes across the organization.

According to Forbes, “Effective ERGs provide a centered space for the communities that they support, as well as opportunities for allies to get involved, build community, and learn about how to support the group. The more people that are actively involved in ERG efforts, the more impactful the groups can be for employees and the business.”

An example of this came from our women’s group discussion on burnout and the effects of quarantine. Many women expressed feelings of guilt or shame in asking for time off during this time. The feeling was, “Well, we aren’t allowed to travel or go anywhere so it doesn't really make sense to ask for time off.”

After the meeting and with the group’s blessing, we brought this to Leadership’s attention and an announcement was made in the following all-hands meeting encouraging all of us to take PTO (paid time off). Even if we were just staying at home, the importance of self-care and mental health breaks was validated across the team.

With these tips in mind, we hope that you too can help widen the DEI lens at your startup and provide a safe space for your team to build community.

For more tips on launching an employee resource group at your startup, check out LifeLabs Learning's playbook and M13's DEI guide: