Tamara Box did not really enjoy the macho after-work drinks culture she experienced at the start of her career, but there were few other options back in the early 1990s. So it was a huge relief when she attended her first women-only network meeting. “Finding women’s networks was a revelation,” says Ms Box, now a managing partner at global law firm Reed Smith, and a member of The Committee of 200 (C200), an elite, global network for women who control large amounts of money.
Today, business and professional networks for women are increasingly popular. They range from workplace-based groups to independent networks, and from get-togethers for women who just want to chat, to sources of training and mentoring.
But should women limit themselves to single-sex networking? An Insead business school study published in 2015 suggests that men’s connections with other men are more helpful to their careers than women’s connections with women. Lily Fang, associate professor of finance at Insead and author of the report, says the discrepancy could arise because men tend to occupy more senior roles. Other studies suggest that members of women-only networks, particularly those that operate in the workplace, either risk alienating their male colleagues or worry that they may do so.
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In fact, women should look for mixed-gender opportunities too, says Sandy Lucas, president of City Women Network, an invitation-only group of senior UK business women. Now human resources director at Alexander Mann Solutions, the recruitment business, she was formerly chief operating officer of GE Capital UK, the finance arm of General Electric. “If you are going to ‘make board’, you need to have the right sponsors,” she says, pointing out that those senior people will usually be men.
Ms Lucas believes, however, that women-only networks do have a role to play, at least partly because women can be particularly shy. She says her role at networking events often involves making sure new women are not left standing at the edges of the room. “Our job is often to introduce women to other women,” she says of her work with CWN.
Ms Box says her early experience of women-only networks made her a staunch fan. In addition to her membership of the C200, she chairs Cancer Research UK’s Women of Influence initiative. This scheme pairs senior women in business with female scientists to mentor and encourage them to stay working in science.
However, she says women-only networks are not always beneficial to their members: “I don’t love women’s networks that are out to further a particular woman’s agenda,” she says, referring to groupings where women might be too focused on their personal careers. She also objects to what she calls a “fix the women” mentality. This assumes that gender imbalance and related problems are addressed simply by fostering a women’s network, a view that she says some groups suffer from.
A women’s network is not a solution, it is part of a solution, and some of that is very personal
Her concerns are echoed by Jane Booth, head of research at Women Ahead, a social enterprise that works to promote women in sports and business in the UK.
“Lots of people are asking questions about the effectiveness of networks,” she says. Although academic literature indicates that networking is a critical skill, Ms Booth says, research by Women Ahead published in January found that some women fear active participation in a women’s network could be detrimental to career progression. The research found that networks were sometimes labelled as “girly groups”, “knitting circles” or even “the witches’ coven”. However, the women surveyed broadly valued the networks they belonged to.
Networks appear to work most successfully when they are formed and run voluntarily, rather than created by managers, Ms Booth says. At the same time, workplace schemes do best when senior executives make clear the network is important.
Gaining support from senior management is not always straightforward, says Justine Lutterodt, director of the Centre For Synchronous Leadership, a UK consultancy whose own research shows the need to exercise caution. “When the woman’s network is perceived to be associated with women’s empowerment at the expense of men, then the objectives of the women’s network could be compromised.”
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Some non-workplace groups appear to take a different view and are ready to hold meetings that have a distinct gender agenda. The guest speaker at a recent social gathering of the CWN was Frances Scott, founder of 50:50 Parliament, a campaign to achieve gender equality in Britain’s legislature.
Combating gender discrimination also inspired the recent formation of One Loud Voice for Women. The UK group’s founders represent six organisations, including the International Women’s Forum and Zonta International. Elaine Aarons, One Loud Voice co-founder and an employment discrimination lawyer, hopes the group will represent 250,000 women by the end of the year.
In the end, women must choose whether their networking is to satisfy a political agenda, further their career, boost their business, or simply enjoy time in the company of other women.
As Ms Box says, it is useful to check what the network’s “mission” is before joining. “A women’s network is not a solution, it’s part of a solution, and some of that is very personal. How you network is critical to every business and every business person.”