Women’s Networking – Why? Part 2

Thanks to all those of you who replied to my original post on women’s networking groups; they were great. I’ve read them all, here, on Twitter and on LinkedIn and this is my reply. Please feel free to comment again!

N.B. What follows is about those women’s business networking groups which do not allow men to attend.

There were, as you might expect, some very robust comments defending the idea of women only networking groups. A few felt they were redundant in this day and age, but not many, and some felt women should do both and attend women only and mixed.

No one really answered this question:

How would we women feel if men only business networks were a growth industry like women only networking groups and blatantly advertised as such?

I am surprised that more men don’t challenge the idea that there are multiple groups across the country meeting to do business which excludes them. Blatantly excludes them by using ‘women’ in the title, it’s rarely subtle. And yes, I know men have been having their old boys networks for years which have excluded women and been a contributing factor to women not progressing at work, and I know they still exist. But should we really be aping something most women have been complaining about for years?

Why Do We Have Women’s Groups?

Why do we have selective groups in the first place? We have them because for some reason what is on offer in the mainstream doesn’t suit, or hasn’t been adapted to meet the needs of a specialist group. For example, there might exist a group for the Chinese community to meet locally in a British town, or a group for people with a particular illness that isn’t understood by the majority, or a professional group that caters for the interests of, say, solicitors.

What these all have in common is that, in terms of the general population they are minority groups. Women are not a minority group, not now. 50 years ago maybe women in business were a minority and I could make an argument for their existence then. Women in very senior positions are in the minority now so maybe a case could be made for specialist executive women groups within an organisation? I’d advise against that (and do frequently if anyone asks me.)

What I would have is a group of people in an organisation or industry who want to see the gender balance changed whatever their sex. I’m with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox on this-if you want to change something you need some of the powerful people, the people with the ability to force change who support your cause, on your side. I know this sounds a bit Catch 22 but let’s be realistic, that’s still mainly men. Which is sort of where we came in!

Don’t we weaken our power base by all these women’s groups springing up? Perhaps it’s time to be really specific about what these groups offer and allow both genders to participate. Perhaps by masking everything under the ubiquitous ‘women’s networking’ title we are positioning ourselves as a minority group in society? Maybe we should be specific as to what it is these groups offer as distinct from traditional networking groups.

Women Network Differently- Be Proud

We do do it differently, (in general) we do it in a women’s way, that’s why so many women told me how much they enjoyed women’s networking groups. It suited them much better than the ‘male’ format which has evolved in many mainstream groups and to which women gradually started attending as more women began to work. Women didn’t like them so set up their own. Fair enough…

But by segregating ourselves in this way are we sending a message that we’re not proud of that feminine angle? What Dr Baron Cohen would call the ‘female brain’ way as opposed to the extreme male way? Shouldn’t we be loud and proud and say ‘we have a networking group that operates according to feminine styles of working to support, discuss, and promote women in business and achieve a better gender balance in business and these are the rule –  if you support this you are welcome to attend, whatever your gender?

If we continue to set up on our own aren’t we perpetuating the status quo? Shouldn’t we be trying to change things? You’ve got to be a presence to effect change.

Confidence to challenge is a big issue for women. Lack of confidence is a huge factor for women progressing upwards (almost every survey identifies this) in a way that it isn’t for men. That’s why a lot of what I do with women is around building confidence,  the issues are so very different for women wanting to progress at work and my courses and website is aimed at women but there are lots of male supporters who read my blog posts and subscribe to my newsletter.

A common riposte supporting  women’s networking events was they build confidence for women to attend others. In which case maybe they need to be called something else? Are they networking training courses? In which case why do they never end…? I work primarily with women. But I have been challenged and have been asked by men why they can’t come on my courses. I’ve explained that the courses are designed to address issues identified as being particular to women at work, but if those issues apply to them they are welcome. I have had one man in one of my all women groups.

It’s a tricky one, I acknowledge that; I have swithered and swayed as I have listened to the arguments. But ultimately my discomfort remains. The plethora of women only business networking groups can make us look weak. I wonder what would happen if all the women only networking groups across the country issued a manifesto as to why they were aimed at women and then offered a welcome to men?

What do you think?

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Posted on July 12th, 2012 by

5 Responses to “Women’s Networking – Why? Part 2”

  1. Adam says:

    Personally, I find the idea of women’s only networking events sexist and unhelpful. I do understand that there may be some business events where women feel excluded or marginalised in some way. But women’s only events is not the way to tackle that problem: I would have thought it would only make it worse. Far better to tackle any events that marginalise women directly, no?

    • Jane says:

      Thanks Adam. Glad to get a male viewpoint. I think there is a place for single gender events (I would say that, wouldn’t I? I offer training specifically to women) at times but what bothers me is that there seems to be a massive increase in women only networks. That feels counter productive to me.

  2. Christopher says:

    Do not see the harm in it to be honest, but like most things, becomes somewhat a boring and less effective trend if it is repeated and carried out too often by those unskilled to do so. There are a few female only networking groups I know and have spoken at, all professional and great atmospheres and certainly beneficial to the ladies attending.

  3. Alison Knight says:

    I am somewhat uncomfortable with a few phrases in the article like,’segregation’, ‘..weaken our power base..’ and ‘..women only ..networking groups can make us look weak..’. Is this becoming too confrontational??
    As a professional civil engineer in a very male dominated industry I welcome the opportunity to attend women only events and with the intention to come back into the workplace feeling supported, to have discussed issues exclusive to women and hopefully to be more effective in my role. I don’t attend with any any unwritten subtext to undermine my male coleagues in any way what so ever or to label anyone as ‘weak’… Women only events have my full support.

    • Jane says:

      Hi Alison, thanks for your thoughtful comments.
      I didn’t mean to sound confrontational (sorry) but maybe I was trying to be provocative…
      It hasn’t bothered me at all until recently when I seem to be getting emails about a new women’s business networking group on a daily basis. There are a lot out there. As you know, I am not anti women only events – obviously, I run them! I think they are very necessary given the difficulties women face at work which are very different from those of men, sadly, nor am I anti professional groups advocating more women, like engineering groups. You could argue that more women’s groups is a sign of women’s increasing confidence in doing things their way, or you could argue that maybe mainstream networking should change to better suit what women want too.
      My point was also about the groups being clear in their aim; if they are support networks to women OK, say so. But if we keep setting up women only business networks what message are we sending out?
      Thanks Alison, you made me pause and think, which is the point of this debate! And I do attend a women’s networking group in Bath from time to time and I like it, as I said in my original post. I just wonder if the balance is tipping too far and that maybe if we could achieve a different type of networking event we might more needs and actually move things on?
      Hope all is well with you, 🙂
      PS I actually wrote about this some time ago in this post here

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