(To my visitors from the Carnegie Mellon homepage, many welcomes! Would love to hear from you if you have questions or comments.)

Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of participating in a unique program at Microsoft in the Server & Tools Division – the STB Women’s Leadership Council. Our chairwoman Betsy Speare recently spoke to the Microsoft JobsBlog about the WLC’s birth and importance at Microsoft. We also spoke a bit about the WLC at the panel Betsy and I participated in at TechEd 2011.

I first heard about the WLC program when the woman who leads my user experience group, Terrell Cox, told me about some of the WLC’s activities during my interview. To be honest, it sounded a bit too good to be true – a program devoted entirely to creating a support network for women in the engineering discipline? But over time, when I had my first opportunity to participate, I saw how powerful the effect of such an organization is. I’m lucky in that my UX team of 40 people has 16 women (soon to be 17!) But for many of the other members of the WLC, they might only see one or two other women during the course of their normal work. Having a support network like this is invaluable, especially when going through life events. For example, I have no plans to become a mother in the forseeable future, but the WLC women that do support each other on their return to work in a way I think has been uniquely effective in allowing these women to successfully return to work if they so choose.

There’s another side to programs like this, though – inclusion vs. exclusion. It’s come up a few times when delivering my Computer Engineer Barbie talk in various Q&A periods – is it counterproductive to form a group that calls attention to the fact that we’re women, and by its nature excludes the opposite gender? I can certainly see the other side of the argument – if we don’t want the concept of gender to get in our way, it’s dangerous to endow that concept with additional awareness. But from my personal experience, ignoring something like that only works if all parties involved are equally participating in the ignoring, and we just aren’t there yet. Significant progress has been made, and I think many of the biases or problems encountered are now the result of subconscious acts instead of deliberate ones, but we’re clearly still not there if only 10% of Microsoft’s engineering division is female (not a phenomenon unique to Microsoft- some video game industry situations are even worse).

Further, there are some unique challenges and phenomena that occur when you become used to being the only woman on a team. Women are far more likely to “bully” other women in the workplace when bullying occurs – it almost seems like an evolutionary imperative to protect one’s territory. When you’re only one woman in a group for so long, it is exceptionally difficult to successfully welcome the next woman. You’ve become accustomed to acting like one of the guys, and perhaps used to the concept of being different. The New York Times did an article on woman to woman workplace bullying a few years ago. So how do you adjust and react supportively instead of defensively?

You certainly can’t argue with the WLC’s results in the face of such issues. In an environment traditionally difficult for women long-term, nine of the ten original founders of the Women’s Leadership Council are still with Microsoft, and eight still in STB. And these women have been through it all – marriages, children, divorces, reorgs, recessions – but the support they’ve found in the WLC has been the thread keeping them here through periods of stress and challenges in their work and personal lives. From a purely practical standpoint, those retention numbers are to die for from an HR perspective, and from my own experience elsewhere in the tech industry they are NOT the norm.

And all this because a few open-minded STB leaders asked some important questions years ago, and realized that supporting a group like this was worth far more than the cost. WLC activities take the form of twice-monthly networking lunches, a series of initiatives along the themes of personal growth and professional development, and other simple events that allow us to connect on a personal level beyond just our shared work. Active participation in the group tripled in the last year – a surprising but delightful realization that has led us to begin figuring out how we scale this to the next level as the number of women we serve increases.

Community is a hard thing to quantify, but vastly impactful where it appears. I think that’s part of what makes IGNITE so successful – rather than adopting a one-off workshop mentality, IGNITE is a year-round extracurricular program that helps girls meet peers with similar interests and creates a community spirit between them. There’s a place for one-off workshops, but your retention and engagement numbers won’t be there if you don’t give your participants a support network for accountability and growth.

So it is, then, that I count myself lucky to be a board member for the WLC, and witness to so many strong friendships and growing careers. We at the WLC really hope other groups of women will find similar success, and are open to answering questions or having a discussion. Sometimes your company isn’t big enough to do this on their own, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a cross-company support network. Or perhaps gender isn’t the right common element for your needs – perhaps there’s a different dimension that will help you form a peer community. But what seem like simple, almost common sense actions can have lasting positive effects, so it’s worth searching for your own WLC and finding a way to connect with your peers on a deeper level.