By Jenny Van Nistelrooy and Kathleen Fraser
In late 2019, Alberta Health Services (AHS) established an EMS Women in Leadership (WIL) Workforce Resource Group (WRG). This article will describe the purposes and objectives of a WRG and outline some of the issues that we plan to tackle in our local context. In case you are wondering how to create a WRG, we will outline the steps we’ve taken to launch this initiative, as well as future plans to build sustainability. We will conclude with information on how we can help each other build Women in Leadership WRGs within EMS.
What is a WRG?
If you Google the term ‘Workforce Resource Group’, you will notice that WRG’s are also referenced as Employee Resource Groups (ERG). WRGs are employee-led, voluntary groups made up of members in the workforce who share common identities, characteristics, bonds, and/or backgrounds (1). WRGs are formed to support the diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies of workplaces and are most effective when they are aligned with organizational values, business objectives, and practices (2). With 90% of Fortune 500 companies integrating WRGs into their D&I strategies, it is now considered best practice to implement WRGs into an organization (3). Women in the workplace is one of the most common types of WRGs observed across the world (3).
While the primary focus of WRGs is advancing the needs of its members, they are also designed to be symbiotic with their supporting organizations (4). WRGs provide organizations with valuable perspectives on systemic barriers to equality. In this way, WRGs support an organization, establishing information that enhances organizational priorities such as talent recruitment, succession planning, and employee engagement and development (3). The organization reciprocates by providing WRG members with an endorsed and structured forum for networking, knowledge and skills development, and access to opportunities such as mentorship and sponsorship programs (3).
What problem are we trying to fix?
In the words of American civil rights activist, Marian Wright Edelman – “you can’t be what you can’t see” (5). Women are not proportionately represented within EMS senior leadership. The frontline paramedic population is almost 50% female; but as one looks up the chain towards senior leadership, we see a decline in equal representation . A WIL WRG can assist organizations in identifying systemic barriers that are impeding women from gaining leadership positions and work alongside them to remove those obstacles. Conversely, WRGs can support the career development of its members. Men will apply for leadership positions when they feel 60% qualified, yet women refrain from applying until they consider themselves 100% qualified (6). WRGs provide opportunities to network with senior leaders, obtain mentoring and sponsorship, and develop leadership skills. This enhances members’ confidence and facilitates women to apply for positions that will lead to greater leadership opportunities.
In July 2019, the gender demographics for AHS EMS frontline paramedics were 56% male and 44% female, based on a staff count of 3 085. The gender demographics for EMS leadership (inclusive of all non-union supervisors) were 81% male and 19% female, based on a staff count of 249. (Alberta Health Services Work Profile, Jun/Jul 2019).
The visible absence of women in senior leadership contributes to the perception that those opportunities are not equitably available. This inequality can impact organizations in several ways. It affects the engagement and retention of talented women, who may feel they must leave EMS to achieve their career goals (7). Women bring alternative perspectives and problem-solving approaches to the leadership table, and this diversity enhances the quality of organizational decisions (8, 9). From an organizational culture perspective, greater gender diversity in leadership results in reduced rates of harassment, improved workplace collegiality, and more accessible role models for women (10).
The intention of the EMS WIL WRG is to increase organizational awareness as to the importance of gender diversity in leadership. This WRG will provide a forum for our collective voice addressing lived workplace experiences, including barriers to career advancement and unsupportive workplace environments. In the spirit of hope, our WRG will facilitate discussion about innovative and collaborative ways to effect meaningful culture change.
How do you create a WRG?
We have been fortunate to receive specialized organizational expertise during the formation of our EMS WIL WRG. With this incredible support, we have been following a well-structured and transparent process for establishing our WRG – inclusive of the following steps:
- Needs Identification – What is the underlying rationale for creating your WRG (3)? In our case, it was the gender leadership gap and its impacts, as outlined above.
- Stakeholder Collaboration – Are there internal or external organizational stakeholders and programs that will support the creation of your WRG (3)? In our case, we are well-supported by the AHS D&I team and EMS senior leadership teams.
- Execute Communications Plan – How will you communicate your potential WRG to your organization’s workforce (3)? We drafted communication specifically for EMS senior leadership to explain the intended purposes of our WRG, address potential concerns and fears, and request specific leadership support. We also created workforce communications, to create organizational buzz and recruit future WRG leaders and members.
- Select WRG Leadership Team – How will you recruit and choose your WRG leaders? In our initial WRG communication, we invited EMS employees to attend WRG Orientation sessions. At these sessions, interested individuals put their names forward as leadership candidates. It was not surprising to see high levels of interest in the leadership roles – after all, this is a group dedicated to leadership development. However, it is important to acknowledge the level of energy, “intrapreuneurial spirit” (11) and depth of courage demonstrated by our WRG leaders.
- Draft WRG Governance Documents – What are the Terms of Reference and goals for your WRG? As mentioned, our D&I experts provided us with some templates for these documents. Our WRG leaders will collaboratively customize and finalize these templates, with support from our sponsors and the AHS Diversity and Inclusion Council. Once that is completed, our WRG will be officially sanctioned and ready to tackle some important and meaningful work.
As we executed these steps, we were guided by the following principles:
- The WRG must be inclusive and representative of our entire EMS workforce (1). This includes all EMS employees (those who identify as female AND our male allies) regardless of position and business area.
- Detailed and frequent communication was and is needed to ensure everyone has the opportunity to hear about our WRG activities.
- The WRG is employee-led and actions and activities are designed to best meet the diverse needs of its members.
- Effective senior leader support is integral for sanctioned AHS WRGs to provide system and subject matter expertise, as well as provide organizational reach and capacity to remove systemic barriers and to champion WRG initiatives across the organization.
What are our future plans for the WRG?
On March 8, 2020, we capitalized on the synchronicity of timing between International Women’s Day (IWD) and the creation of our WRG. In an IWD social media campaign, our EMS WIL WRG, along with profiles on some of our leadership, was announced. We plan to host at least one WRG event this year, with our first event focusing on engaging new members as well as opportunities for professional development and networking.
There is no definitive instruction manual on how to build and sustain a successful WRG. However, we believe that understanding the needs of our WRG membership is vital to its sustainability. To that end, we will continuously dialogue with all our members to ensure our activities are responsive to their goals and relevant to the issues they face in their leadership journeys.
How can you get involved with a WRG?
At this point, we hope you are wondering how you could become involved in a WRG. Whether you would like to know more about how to build a sustainable WRG in your EMS organization or have ideas about how WRGs could support and promote women leaders, we want to hear from you. Together we can create a strong unified national voice to promote and support women in EMS leadership. We look forward to working together to achieve gender-balanced leadership teams in Canadian paramedicine.
Acknowledgement: We are grateful to Marni Panas and Donna Carter from AHS Diversity and Inclusion for their support and guidance with the creation of our WRG.
- Alberta Health Services (AHS) Diversity and Inclusion. AHS WRG terms of reference. 2019.
- Lynch K. Creating diverse and inclusive business: The evolution of Employee Resource Groups [Internet]. Realized Worth; 2020 Jan 12 [cited 2020 May 26]. Available from: https://www.realizedworth.com/2019/06/26/creating-diverse-inclusive-business-the-evolution-of-employee-resource-groups/
- Sabattini L, Ye A, Popiela A, Horan J. What’s next for employee groups [Internet]. The Conference Board; 2020 January 10 [cited 2020 May 26]. Available from: https://www.conferenceboard.ca/e-Library/abstract.aspx?did=10571
- Welbourne T M, Rolf S, Schlachter S. Employee resource groups: An introduction, review and research agenda. Conference paper, Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings [Internet]. August 2015 [cited 2020 May 28]. Available from: ResearchGate
- Jong A. You can’t be what you can’t see: how to get more women in tech [Internet]. The Muse; 2020 [cited 2020 May 19]. Available from: https://www.themuse.com/advice/you-cant-be-what-you-cant-see-how-to-get-more-women-in-tech
- Mohr T S. Why women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified [Internet]. Harvard Business Review; 2014 Aug 25 [cited 2020 May 19]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified?
- McKinsey & Company. Women in the workplace [Internet]. McKinsey & Company; 2019 [cited 2020 May 26]. Available from https://womenintheworkplace.com/
- Cloverpop (2017). Hacking Diversity with Inclusive Decision Making [Internet]. Cloverpop; 2017 [cited 2020 May 26]. Available from: CloverPop
- Badal S. The Business Benefits of Gender Diversity [Internet]. Gallup; 2014 Jan 20 [cited 2020 May 26]. Available from: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236543/business-benefits-gender-diversity.aspx
- LeBlanc C, Simpson C. Challenge to change: Diversity in leadership. Can J Physician Leadership [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2020 May 28];5(1):16. Available from: https://cjpl.ca/assets/cjplvol5num1.pdf
- Morris S. 8 Things I wish someone had told me about being an ERG leader [Internet]. Diversity Journal; 2014 Feb 10 [cited 2020 May 26]. Available from: https://diversityjournal.com/12722-8-things-wish-someone-told-erg-leader/