Yesterday, I detailed why we think employee resource groups (or ERGs as they’re called) are so incredibly powerful. Even though less than 30% of companies have them, nearly half of women aged 18-44 say the existence and quality of an ERG at a company would impact where they work. More impressive: Nearly 90% of women aged 18-60 say being part of a women’s or family ERG has made their lives better at work.

It’s hard to find any benefit companies can offer that moves the needle that much across such a wide swath of women.

And yet, there are a lot of downsides to being engaged in or starting an ERG. The biggest one is that the vast majority of women who run them are not paid to do so. Less than 30% of the women we surveyed said that anyone at their company was compensated to run an ERG, despite the massive impact they have on morale, retention and recruitment within companies.

And here’s the thing: I have a hunch that number is actually lower. Some of the largest ERGs in corporate America, ones that count tens of thousands of women among their members, don’t pay the women who organize them. But because they have a decent sized budget for buying books, box lunches, and organizing events, most of the women who are members of ERGs may not realize this is volunteer labor. In fact, many of the women I’ve spoken to at ERG events are shocked when I tell them the women running them are doing it as a totally unpaid side hustle.

We had a debate on Chairman Mom earlier this year on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing for women to spend so much time and energy on ERGs when they aren’t getting paid. You can see the dilemma: On one hand, you are dramatically making life for some 90% of women at your company better. It’s a high-impact way to be the change you want to see in the world. But on the other hand, women are already paid less than their male counterparts, have to work harder to get the same recognition, and are doing more than their fair share of housework at home.

Isn’t this just an extreme form of the same old emotional labor to expect female employees to run the organizations making the biggest impact on women’s lives at the company…for free???

Companies pay for what they value. So what message does it send when companies won’t pay for these groups to be run well?

ERGs are like a microcosm of what keeps going wrong when it comes to Corporate America’s inability to move the needle on diversity. They are a well-recognized best practice to create change inside and outside companies, helping with mentoring, career advancement, retention and recruiting of diverse talent. Beyond that, some companies like Disney have seen ERGs develop new product lines for women and people of color, leading directly to increased revenues and profitability. And yet, less than a third of companies have them and of those who do less than a third pay anyone to run them.

Companies are clearly taking advantage of women’s tendency to take on unpaid work that no one else wants to do. From an Ellevest article on the downside of ERGs: “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.

[Researchers] 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.”

Let’s parse how awful that is for a moment: Companies are essentially getting rewarded with free labor, but the worse they do in supporting families and women. As some women argued in our thread about this, ERGs are hardly on the same level as “office housework.” There are very real networks, skills, and internal champions you likely develop doing this work. But many researchers still argue it’s a net drain on women’s careers, even potentially hurting their ability to get promoted because it takes time away from the job they’re getting evaluated on.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote about this in a scathing Vanity Fair piece called “How to Break up the Silicon Valley Boys’ Club.” She lists paid staff running groups that support any underrepresented employees as the second most important thing companies can do to change things in Silicon Valley.

From the piece: “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.”

The answer isn’t that ERGs should go. The answer is that women should be paid to run them. Or, barring that, they should get more resources that make it less of a tax on their time.

More on that this week!

Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:

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