Incubeta Insider UK: 5 Minutes with The Women’s Affinity Network

In our latest Incubeta Insider piece, we sat down with Scarlett Rushby-Smith and Sidra Iqbal, co-network leads of the internal Incubeta Women’s Affinity Network. To commemorate National Tea Day Sidra and Scarlett discussed the network’s infamous Tea Share.

Scarlett Rushby-Smith & Sidra Iqbal

These are monthly sessions that are hosted virtually, and are designed to provide a platform for open discussion on a range of topics that impact people, especially women, in society. These sessions are open to all staff, and are run alongside closed communication Affinity Network groups on Incubeta’s internal messaging platform (Slack), which aim to provide a confidential forum to discuss shared experiences and challenges. 

Could you give us a bit of background into your roles in the women’s affinity network, how the tea shares came about, and some of the topics you cover?

Sidra: One of the main reasons I wanted to create the Women’s Affinity Network was to have women around the business to discuss topics in a safe and judgement free environment – similar to having a chat with your friends over a cup of tea. I’m sure many people have heard of the term ‘spill the tea’ which I believe was popularized in America and is associated with a gossip-y chat. I wanted to take the spin on this and call these discussions ‘Tea Share’ where women could instead talk about important issues and topics… all whilst having a cup of tea! I never imagined the Tea Shares to become such an integral part of company culture and discussions, and it’s really highlighted the importance of allowing people a platform to share their experiences, and feel heard. 

Scarlett: Echoing Sidra here, I think the Tea Shares have been an amazing opportunity for underrepresented and over-stigmatized topics to be spoken about openly in the workplace. 

When Sidra reached out to me about joining her for the first tea share, I jumped at the idea! I’d previously run a focus group in the office, to talk about which period products we should supply for our staff, and all attendees responded so positively, it was a real signifier that something like the Tea Share in a corporate environment was needed. Since then, we’ve covered issues surrounding Body Image, pressure, equality and more. We always try to explore various different elements of a topic, to create a wider picture of that theme. For example, when we talk about consent, we not only discuss sexual consent across a range of gendered experiences, but also how to set up boundaries in the workplace. 

Some of the topics sound quite hard-hitting. How do you make these sessions accessible to everyone, and what has been the general feedback?

Scarlett: I think the first and most important thing to consider when you want to cover a difficult topic is creating a safe space. When we started out with the Tea Share, we realized that we’d be talking about a lot of marginalised experiences. Many of the topics touch upon areas that might be triggering, and we wanted to ensure these sessions were as accessible as possible. We always start our sessions with a disclaimer, featuring trigger warnings when needed, and mentioning that the topics are subject to our own opinion, we’re not doctors, psychologists or experts in any way! In contrast to that, we do encourage people to listen to the more taboo and hard hitting sections of our conversations, as it helps to break down the stigma and shame that can be associated with them.

To ensure that a range of voices and opinions are heard, we introduced a poll system, using a technology that allows our listeners to submit anonymous comments during the session. We feed these inputs into the conversation, so people can be involved without having to speak openly about their personal experiences. We get a load of responses through this poll throughout the session, and it’s so nice to see how comfortable people feel using it. 

Sidra: As hosts, we have also been extremely open about sharing our own experiences during the Tea Shares, which we definitely think has allowed for other people to be more comfortable in also sharing their experiences in the polls. The more we talk about things that are typically taboo, the easier it becomes to usualize these discussions and create more safe spaces.

What have you learnt from the tea shares? How have they impacted Incubeta’s culture?

Scarlett: For me, one of the biggest things I’ve learnt is how ready and willing our staff are to learn and talk about these topics! I expected our audience to be predominantly cis-female staff, but it’s been so refreshing to see the men in our office come to sessions about womens health issues. We also had a male speaker come on to talk about pressures surrounding body image, something which is so often dominated by female stereotypes. There’s a real opportunity to educate and be educated on an experience you might not have had yourself. That’s where the importance of advocacy and allyship comes in, and it’s amazing to see.

In terms of how they’ve impacted our company culture, I’ve seen people using the affinity networks (that we have set up as closed spaces for Women, POC, parents, LGBT+ and Neurodiverse staff members) more openly, which is a testament to our staff, and Incubeta as a business for helping create this space.  

We’ve even opened up our Tea Share to external guests. Through our work with M&S, Sidra got chatting to, and invited Angela Lillis (Insight Lead at M&S), who was voted one of the top 20 women in Data in 2019. Angela talked to us about her experiences as a woman in digital.

“The tea shares are a great initiative. When I joined them for tea, they seemed like a great, supportive community, more than happy to discuss a variety of topics. There’s a lot of companies who talk about diversity and creating a supportive environment for colleagues, but Sid and Scarlett ensure that that conversation continues, bringing people together (be it physically or remotely). “

Sidra: From my perspective, it’s been extremely eye opening and reassuring to know the gravity of how much other people in the business relate to what I’m going through and vice versa. It’s been amazing to feel like a community going through issues in a safe space and promoting togetherness.

We’ve also created a resource sheet which is shared after each session and contains links and helpful follow on topics to ensure that everyone who has attended has a follow on to seek help or advice going forward.

Scarlett; We’ve had some great feedback from people that our tea shares have encouraged them to open up to a line manager about something they were previously afraid to bring up, so it’s amazing to see they’re working to break down barriers and help our staff be more authentic in the workplace – which is so important for our company culture. 

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