An initiative designed to empower women working in the co-op movement is going from strength to strength
The Aspire network was launched in 2012 as a result of a pilot consultation in Manchester to find out if there was a need for a women’s career network to empower more female employees in the Co-operative Group.
Aspire is run by a team of seven volunteers led by Sharon Pegg, who has worked in learning and development and HR. She headed up the equality department within the banking group at Bradford and Bingley, before moving to Humberside Fire and Rescue Service, achieving recognition from the Times Top 50 Employers for Women and a number of LGBT awards, as well as an acknowledgment of achievement under the Equality Framework for Local Government.
Ms Pegg now leads the Co-operative Group’s diversity and inclusion strategy and represents the organisation on the board of inclusive employers.
The initial consultation ahead of Aspire’s launch, she says, wanted to “find out what barriers women perceived there were in the workplace […] and how a network could help females within The Co-operative Group.”
The results of the findings from focus groups highlighted three main areas of concern for women: support; confidence; and work-life balance. Initially, the research was aimed at lower role band employees – but it found that barriers were much the same for women at all levels.
“In my own personal experience, after I had my son I did not seem to have time for anything else other than my day job and home life,” says Ms Pegg. “When I was ready to kick start my career, my confidence seemed to have disappeared and I did not know how to get my career moving again. I was very lucky that somebody identified the talent I had and supported my development.”
Aspire now aims to provide a safe space where women can talk through concerns with other colleagues within the Co-operative Group or with other groups it is linked with. It also organises regular events for members to support their development as well as a chance to dip in to other resources within the Group.
The steering group produces the quarterly Aspire Magazine, which has diverse editorial content ranging from role model features to articles about employees and key dates on the calendar. It also co-ordinates membership and online activity, with a growing presence on Twitter.
According to Ms Pegg, one of the major challenges is the fact most networking events are still held in the capital. “Outside London there are fewer events and one of the ways we are looking to overcome this is by working more closely with other networks to offer a wider choice.”
Aspire is also committed to hosting a number of learning events designed to enhance members’ personal professional development. The majority of these are ‘lunch and crunch’ sessions – held at a time during the day which fits in around members’ work commitments.
Topics have ranged from developing communication and presentation skills to discussion forums about managing power and politics in the workplace.
One of the main channels for communication is the internal intranet site where Aspire has its own pages where employees can find out more about the network. There are also regular emails about news and events.
In the year ahead, Aspire’s team aims to expand the network across the UK and grow its membership.
“We have looked at how we can make our communication more accessible,” says Ms Pegg. “For the first time the next edition of the magazine will be available to all to download.”
“Everyone involved in coordinating the network is a volunteer who believes in what the network is all about. They all have an input into the strategy and moving the network forward.”
Aspire works closely with the Group’s LGBT network, Respect and REACH – a new race, ethnicity and cultural heritage network.
“The Group’s new purpose – championing a better way of doing business for you and your communities – reflects that, for the Co-operative Group, how we run our business is more important than merely maximising our profits,” adds Ms Pegg.
“It takes us back to our roots, and the very reason we developed our co-operative approach. It encapsulates our aims to be commercially successful while continuing to implement our commitment to the communities in which we operate.
“Equal rights for women have been part of our foundation. As a co-operative movement we need to ensure that women are heard. Aspire empowers women with that belief that they can achieve that. Aspire not only provides that voice for women but also empowers women to be the best they can be.”