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Career Advice

The case for employee resource groups at universities

Why ongoing support is important while navigating an academic career.


Meet Margot, a 32-year-old woman who recently started a job as a staff member at University X. Margot wants a successful career in which she can move up into progressively more challenging roles with increasing responsibility. Despite her past work experience and academic credentials, after months on the job she still feels isolated and unsure about how to be successful at a large academic institution.

Margot has learned a lot from the professional development workshops offered through human resources, but what she needs now is ongoing support for navigating her career. Many of us have experienced similar feelings (uncertainty and isolation, paired with a desire for career support and guidance), which is what motivated us to form the first employee resource group, or ERG, at Queen’s University.

ERGs, also called employee networks or affinity groups, are made up of employees who share common interests and backgrounds. Grassroots in nature and membership-driven, ERGs create forums that foster an inclusive environment in which employees feel empowered and supported in developing and maximizing their professional potential. ERGs are prevalent at American universities, but are still relatively uncommon in Canada. In 2013, Queen’s launched a collaborative initiative between the equity office and human resources to explore the feasibility and benefits associated with ERGs.

In 2015, the inaugural ERG at Queen’s was formed. Young Women at Queen’s is a non-hierarchical, community-driven group of self identified women of all ages in the early stages of their careers. YWQ members are from a variety of departments and units across the university. We meet every two weeks to strategize and talk about professional and career development.

The group’s overarching mandate is focused on the principles of advocacy, engagement, community building and knowledge sharing. Since its inception, YWQ has organized a number of successful initiatives, including a lunchtime speaker series, a university-wide lecture event and a mentorship program.

YWQ functions as an agile participative democracy. This means we are self-managed and are able to quickly change our organizing principles to meet the needs of group life when the context changes. For example, our mentorship program and speaker series were initiated by members to address identified career development needs. The decision to pursue these initiatives was made collaboratively using a consensus model. The structure of the group, which until that point had been accomplishing work as one unit, shifted to include small subcommittees that worked on these projects outside of the larger group on its behalf, checking in as necessary.

As a result of this flexibility in structure, within six months, YWQ developed a functioning mentorship program that pairs group members with women in senior administrative positions at the institution, and a lunchtime speaker series that invites successful women working at Queen’s to speak to the group about their own M career paths. Through these efforts, YWQ members receive not only valuable professional development opportunities, but also a sense of pride, accomplishment and connectedness.

It is not uncommon for employees working in the traditional silos of a university to feel isolated. For those of us who are in the relatively early stages of our careers as university administrators, feelings of isolation can be accompanied by a sense of uncertainty about how to grow as a professional and advance within the institution. Workshops offered by human resources provide tools for dealing with discrete workplace situations; however, the unique nature of the university environment also warrants holistic career support using a bottom-up approach, which can be offered by ERGs. In this environment, an ERG requires backing from the administration; however, for best results it is necessary for the administration to offer this support in a hands-off manner, giving the group permission to exist without directing its activities or focus.

Establishing YWQ has allowed us the autonomy to seek out and create the professional development opportunities we need, and has resulted in a strong network of peers from across the university for each of us to draw on for support. These features empower us to take charge of our careers and connect us to the broader university community. By bringing our ERG to the attention of others, we hope to encourage every Margot across Canada to consider initiating similar ERGs at their universities. For us, the results have been hugely rewarding.

With contributions from Emma Sobel, Joelle B. Thorpe and Jennifer Valberg. The authors were all members, at one time or another, of the Young Women at Queen’s employee resource group.

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