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How Carnival's Athena networking programme is empowering women

It’s been nine months since three Carnival UK employees launched a new women’s network, Athena. Abigail Healy asks them how it has shaken up the business.

Carnival Athena .JPG
Carnival Athena .JPG

Athena was born out of three women getting together and having a conversation. We’d love it if, in the wider trade, people started to have those conversations more often,”

It was a conversation after work in their local All Bar One that got Emma Kenny, Brodie McIntosh and Rosy Sims thinking. Kenny had joined the company from Royal Bank of Scotland, where she had been involved in a women’s network and had “seen some real business benefits from it”.


“I saw that Carnival UK had so many talented women across the business but not so many in senior leadership positions, so I thought about whether there was something we, as employees, could do to change that.”


The trio hatched a plan to create Athena, a network designed to help women develop and thrive within the business. Sims says: “We were clear from the start that Athena was inclusive. We like to put it as ‘designed by women for everyone’.”


Since then the network has made impressive headway. Kenny says they hold an event every month, which tends to follow one of two approaches.


“We have two styles of events,” says McIntosh. “One is Knowledge Exchange, which features an expert in a particular field – its someone internal, as we want to champion the role models and talent we have in the business. We ask attendees to come with the mindset of learning something new, for example, we had a director of procurement deliver a workshop on negotiating skills.


“The other is called Athena Meets. This is an informal networking event with a discussion topic. This month we are hosting one on women in male-dominated industries and timing it in line with National Inclusion Week. We’ll have a panel of women who have experience of the topic.


“We also look to hold large, disruptive events that get the attention of the whole company, for example, on International Women’s Day we handed out flowers as people arrived at work and wished them a Happy Women’s Day.”

Popular events

So far there are 150 sign-ups to the Athena email database, plus a private Facebook group with 100 members.

But even more remarkable is that the events have seen 600 attendances so far – impressive, given that Carnival House has 1,300 employees.


“The last event was over-subscribed, so we had to find a bigger venue – it’s a good problem to have,” laughs McIntosh.


The events have covered topics such as imposter syndrome – when people feel inadequate or fear being exposed as a fraud – and negotiating skills. Kenny highlights that as well as more junior employees, attendees include senior leaders who want to take their learnings back to their teams. The network also has support from two executive sponsors within the business: Simon Palethorpe and Paula Porter.


“We thought we should have a man and a woman as our sponsors so we have a balanced view from the top,” asserts Kenny.


Kenny, McIntosh and Sims meet weekly to discuss how to shape the network and regularly ask their database what they want to learn about or discuss.


“One area we are particularly keen to develop in future is staff returning to work after starting a family – whether that’s men or women,” says Kenny.


Sims says: “Long-term, we’d love to be able to say we’ve seen a growth in the number of women in senior leadership positions, but now we are celebrating the everyday wins such as emails saying a workshop has given them the confidence to achieve something new.”


It all goes to show that the spark of an idea really can grow into a proactive, disruptive force.

Top tips for disruption

1. Gather support “We’ve had so much support within the business. Before we set up the group we found allies around the business who were keen to get this off the ground,” says Sims.


2. Start by talking “Athena was born out of three women getting together and having a conversation. We’d love it if, in the wider trade, people started to have those conversations more often,” says McIntosh.

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