By Elizabeth Harrin (London)

Would you attend a summit called ‘Finding Your Passion and Living Your Purpose’? Plenty of female employees at AXA Equitable did. “We thought that women at AXA would benefit from working together to create opportunities to do more – for themselves and for the company,” says Barbara Goodstein, Executive Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer at AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company. “We wanted to do something to help create a community for women at AXA. We also feel that given the financial crisis around us, this is the ideal time to connect the women in the company and create a community to support and enable each other.”

This event was the launch of The AXA Equitable Connection – the company’s new women’s programme. Approximately 63 percent of the total AXA Equitable employee population is female, and the company realised that women’s financial needs are different. “Women live longer, they often have been less involved in managing the family finances, and women historically have earned 80% of what men earn for similar jobs,” says Goodstein. “So there is a real need for financial education and support. We want to be the first company women think of when they are looking for financial information and guidance; we want to be the first company women consider when they are interested in pursuing a career in financial services.”

Through The AXA Equitable Connection female employees and financial professionals are building a community through which they can draw from their collective strength, insight and experience to enhance career growth and opportunities. The plans is that AXA Equitable will foster this community through events, mentoring relationships, employee resource groups and networking.

“We launched The AXA Equitable Connection to connect women consumers to the education, resources, and guidance they need to take control of their finances,” says Goodstein.  Information can be found through the Learning Center on the company’s website.  From there, women can access ‘Women Wealth and Wisdom’ information, which provides articles about taking charge of your finances, how to protect your loved ones, saving for tuition fees and other topics.  The site also provides tools like the retirement calculator which as also been made available on iTunes as new apps that can be downloaded to the iPhone and the iPod Touch. “In the two weeks since those apps have launched, we have seen 8,000 apps downloaded, with 2,000 inquiries for more information, which confirms to us that the need is real and it is serious,” says Goodstein.

While these tools are available to women outside the company too, the programme also has the objective of carrying on the buzz created by the women’s summit.

“I felt that was the day I’d searched for during my entire working life,” said one woman in an email just after the summit. “Providing a forum, a community, a place for women to help and support others, to tell their stories and share their lives- that to me, is a barrier breaker, a quantum leap for all women in the workforce.  A revelation long overdue.”

“As a result of the event, I have received numerous notes from women describing how they have initiated conversations with their managers about what they really want and need to be more successful,” says Goodstein.  “I have also received success stories about how women have taken steps to enrich their lives outside the office, and how they felt motivated to do so a result of these efforts.”

Building Diverse Communities for Growth and Development

The AXA Equitable Connection continues to support women at the company, even now the summit has passed. “Internally, The AXA Equitable Connection is designed to build, for women employees and financial professionals, a community that enhances workplace opportunities for growth and development,” says Goodstein. “We are also looking at how to collaborate with the senior women leaders in our sales force about how to bring in more female financial professionals and also how to direct our marketing efforts to help them support their female clients and attract female prospects.”

The programme forms part of a range of diversity initiatives at the company. AXA Equitable’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council is made up of 15 individuals from a variety of business areas and locations. The group meets quarterly with Chairman and CEO Kip Condron and Executive Management Committee members. The role of the Council is to support and advise senior management in driving business excellence through diversity and inclusion.

An example of this is the Employee Resource Groups, which are made up of employees who share common interests or dimensions of diversity – although membership is open to everyone. The Groups are as diverse as the communities they serve: there’s AXA Pride (an LGBT group), the Pan Asian Resource Council, and an African American group starting up in February 2010.

The Diversity Objective

Diversity forms part of the executive team’s objectives, too. “Each member of our executive management committee has objectives around recruiting, retaining and developing individuals from diverse backgrounds, and building programs that enhance diversity and inclusion,” says Tracey Gray-Walker, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer. “Standard sourcing has grown to include not only sourcing from major search firms, career websites and job fairs, but search firms and career websites that specialize in helping to locate candidates from diverse backgrounds.”

This includes partnering with major diverse professional business organizations such as the National Association of Black Accountants and the Association of Latinos in Finance and Accounting. “We participate in diversity career fairs and partner with sites like that are committed to providing a diverse group of candidates for career opportunities,” says Gray-Walker. “AXA Equitable is committed to a workplace that is diverse, inclusive and merit-based.”