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Is Your Employee Resource Group Helping Or Hurting?

Is Your Employee Resource Group Helping Or Hurting?

Don’t make underrepresented people work a second job as diversity champions.
Natasha Litt, Data Engineer at New Relic


For any minority group, a community where you can connect with your peers is an invaluable resource. This is especially true for women employed in male-dominated fields; at Ellevate, we see the benefits of such a community every day.

Many companies rely on a Women's Employee Resource Group to provide such a community; in fact, establishing an ERG run by employee volunteers is a widely accepted diversity best practice.

Catalyst  defines Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as "voluntary, employee-led groups that serve as a resource for members and organizations by fostering a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with organizational mission, values, goals, business practices, and objectives." 

These volunteer-led groups are often at the forefront of internal diversity and inclusion efforts, responsible for organizing and hosting events, finding and sponsoring volunteering opportunities, running mentorship programs, and diversifying recruiting pipelines.

Programs like these are valuable - perhaps even critical - to creating a positive environment and diversifying corporations, but it's a mistake to overlook the cost of asking underrepresented minority groups to voluntarily run them.


Ask yourself - should female employees be asked to run your women's employee resource group?

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Research has proven that women take on "non-promotable" tasks, like serving on a committee or organizing an event, at twice the rate of men. Such tasks take the place of excelling at core responsibilities that can be discussed in a performance evaluation; volunteering on a committee is valuable, but not an accomplishment that will help secure a raise or promotion.

In “Breaking the Glass Ceiling with 'No': Gender Differences in Declining Requests for Non-Promotable Tasks,” Lise Vesterlund, Linda Babcock, and Laurie Weingart  suggest this is a key reason why women advance at a slower rate than men in the workplace. Their findings show that in mixed-sex environments when an undesirable [non-promotable] task is presented, women volunteer twice as often as men, but only do so once it’s clear that no one else will. 


Women volunteer 2x as often as men for non-promotable tasks, like running committees.

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Weingart, professor and senior executive dean at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business,  has further noted that women spend an average of five hours a week doing "office housework," like cleaning the communal kitchen, planning staff parties, and other non-job-related tasks.

She continues,

This dynamic contributes to what researchers call “vertical gender segregation,” which is an academic way of saying that accepting all of these extra duties in the name of being a good team player is really a bad career move. The time women spend doing literal and figurative “office housework” cuts into the time they need to do their actual jobs, and that can reflect poorly on them when performance reviews roll around.

Yes, running an Employee Resource Group is not quite "housework" - it provides a leadership opportunity, internal visibility, and an opportunity to give back. Those same benefits, however, can also be found leading a new project, working with an important client, or through any number of opportunities that employees can actually talk about during their performance reviews.

This tension inherent to running ERGs is illustrated by Susan Wojcicki in her recent piece  "How to Break Up the Silicon Valley Boys’ Club," 

...Companies need to provide money and staff to groups that support female—or any underrepresented—employees. Women’s groups have been a lifeline throughout my career, giving me a place to find inspiration, build friendships, and seek support during difficult times. But these groups take time and effort to organize, and often that burden falls on those who are already at a disadvantage. Underrepresented employees already have to overcome discriminatory barriers in their careers; they shouldn’t be expected to volunteer their time to help their companies do the same. Companies should take the lead from underrepresented groups, but they also need to provide resources to help them execute on their priorities, whether it’s holding trainings or off-sites, sending people to conferences or hosting social events.

There's a simple solution: instead of asking your female employees to lead volunteer committees, why not simply provide more opportunities for them to lead and grow your business? 

Let them put their best energy towards the jobs they were hired for, and lean on industry conferences and external networks (or a dedicated Diversity & Inclusion team) to provide communities and professional development resources to support them.


Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.

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