What, if any, are the benefits of gender specific networks?
Women's networking groups have grown in popularity in recent years, both for entrepreneurs and within large companies. As they have grown, so they have polarised opinion. I have worked with a number of such networks and forged relationships with many others and have come across many women who feel they do a fantastic job. I have also met women who have been very critical and feel that they play a negative role by reinforcing gender roles and pigeon-holing.
This blog has been prompted by a question asked on Twitter by Vena Ramphal. Vena asked me, "What, if any, are the benefits of gender specific networks?" As I am not aware of any male-only business networks, and fear the reaction they would get should anyone wish to set one up, I am assuming that Vena is specifically referring to women's networks in her question.
First of all I think you have to look at the purpose of such networks. In traditionally male-dominated industries where women have struggled to secure strong representation at higher levels of management, the formation of a women's network has played a vital role in empowering women to work together and break through the glass ceiling.
In addition to attending a number of corporate women's networking events, I have spoken for BT's Executive Women's Network and Mastercard's Women's Leadership Network, as well as being involved in an event put on by Morgan Stanley Women's Network togethether with the European Professional Women's Network. A few years ago the idea of 'networking' was frowned upon by women attending such events. In fact, I was made to feel awkward for asking about women networking at such an event two years ago (I wrote about it in this blog).
As I mentioned in my blog at the time, women traditionally have felt that networking is manipulative, game-playing and the preserve of men. Suzanne Doyle-Morris's excellent book 'Beyond the Boys Club' makes it very clear that many of the behavioural traits that help men build their networks and succeed in large organisations do not come naturally to women. This is a real shame as women naturally have a lot of the core characteristics of good networkers (as I outlined in '...and Death Came Third!'), but are less comfortable when leveraging that network for personal gain.
Women's networks have brought women in such industries together and given them both the permission to network for career gain, and the means by which they can do so. Where the field is so uneven due to ingrained attitudes and behaviour, there are compelling arguments for supporting such gender specific networks.
Male dominance also plays a role in entrepreneurial networks. I have been to well over 1,000 networking events in the last decade and have, on many occasions, seen groups that are completely dominated by men. It is intimidating enough for someone to have to enter a room full of strangers, that is made even more difficult if you are the only woman (or man) in the room. The situation was in danger of becoming self-perpetuating as many women would prefer not to network at all rather than feel so vulnerable.
Women's networks have made networking more accessible for those people who did feel intimidated by attending male-dominated events. Not only is the room more welcoming, but networking with people who may share similar values or experiences makes the occasion so much more palatable for inexperienced networkers. My hope is that women who attend such events for these reasons build up sufficient confidence to attend other networks as well.
Another key benefit of gender specific networks (and this also applies to cultural networks) is learning from, and being inspired by, role models. I met with a prominent female entrepreneur recently and we were discussing the lack of successful women business role models. Women who are looking to succeed need to be able to look up and see other women who have achieved great things and from whom they can gain strength and support. Women's networks bring such women together and invite role models to speak and share their stories and advice.
I do think that gender specific networks have real benefits to offer, and probably many more than I have been able to outline here. The key is that they exist to provide those benefits, rather than just for the sake of being.