Are women's networking groups useless?

June 13, 2013

I'm a relative newcomer to networking. When I worked as a reporter for a public radio show, I was in the office almost every day, busy from 9.30 to 6ish, or 4a.m. to noon, and glad to go home at the end of the day having met my deadline and got on the air. I didn't think about networking. I was thoroughly engaged where I was, and the word had something unpleasant about it, something fake and schmooze-festy, a tinge of falseness I didn't associate with myself. 

Once I was out on my own, the word acquired a whole new meaning. Now I network whenever I can, within reason. Often, simply because of the nature of what I'm doing with this show, I'm at networking events with other women. That can be great - I think women let their hair down when they're with other women - but there have been several times when I've been at such events and wondered whether they are helping me in any way whatsoever. The whole point of networking is to meet people who can help you in some way with your career or business and who you may be able to help in return. When I interviewed an entrepreneur for a public radio story last year, she agreed that there's a tendency for a group of women to forget what they're there for:

"One of most infuriating things for me going out is when I attend certain women-in-business functions and it’s a social club." 

It turns out things may not be much better within large companies, although not because these networking groups function as social clubs. In this piece in the Harvard Business Review, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox (now there's a name for you) says most in-company women's groups are doing nothing to advance women within the company. I'll quote one of my favorite paragraphs:

"A group of men who decide (or are told by government) that they need more women in their teams turn to the few women in senior roles and task them with finding a solution. The women, delighted with this glimmer of interest in their fate, duly throw themselves (in their free time, on top of their day jobs) into launching usually unfunded corporate women's networks and draft a business case on the corporate advantages of gender balance. A senior woman is put in charge and sent to every external conference as a corporate representative. This results in a women's conference with lots of motivational speakers and a few male 'champions' to encourage the girls. Sound familiar?"

It does. I have a friend who works at a large global media company who describes her firm's efforts to advance women in just this way - she says the men at the firm see the women's networking groups, think, "The women are off doing their thing", and stay firmly in their own firmament. The result is that at the firm's conferences and events, it's still an all-white-male lineup. The men shrug, sure that they're making large efforts on their female colleagues' behalf, yet still they don't seem able to climb the ladder. I highly recommend Wittenberg-Cox's piece, in which she suggests ways this situation can be turned around, including instituting accountability for managers who are tasked with building more balanced teams, and instead of women's networks, having what she calls 'balance networks' with both sexes (if you heard the last show you'll know I can't stand the word 'gender', but here it is anyway, coming from Wittenberg-Cox).

"Their goal becomes skill- and bridge-building around gender understanding rather than segregation."

I'd love to hear from anyone in the comments who has strong views on women's networking groups - in-house or otherwise.