Networking woman to woman

May 24, 2014

“My view on women’s networking is that I’m amazed people get away with it inside companies.” – Financial Times columnist Mrs. Moneypenny 

As I mentioned at the end of my most recent show on the horrors of networking, one of the things I didn’t get to was the topic of women’s-only networking groups, and how useful, or not, they actually are.

When I first interviewed FT columnist and author Heather McGregor (pen name Mrs. Moneypenny) two years ago, she gave me the above quote. What on earth would people say, she said, if there were a men’s-only networking group within a company? Still, a lot of women would argue that, in reality, that’s exactly what their company was for decades – a big old boys’ network that didn’t include women in all those under-the-radar networking opportunities, from lunches to golf games to trips to strip clubs. (In the late '90s I worked for an executive who regularly took clients to strip clubs – I’m guessing none of the clients in attendance were female). Thus the springing up of women’s-only groups within many large companies. The women thought, "If we can't join 'em, let's at least play at their own game among ourselves," and the companies thought, "Great, the women are happy off in their own corner dealing with all this women stuff. Let’s let them get on with it.” But the result is that virtually nothing changed. Networking among their own sex did little to elevate women’s status within the workplace, because the most powerful workplace group, men, weren't there.

This is the exact frustration my next Broad Experience guest, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, expressed to me recently. She says in the beginning the internal women’s groups were a valuable confidence-building resource for women, but they’ve long outlived their usefulness.

“What we need inside companies is for the dominant majority to learn more about gender differences,” she says. “When you separate people into women’s networks and they talk among themselves the men are excluded from the conversation…And that does not build anyone’s management skills, neither the men’s or the women’s, about leading across genders.”

You’ll hear more from Avivah in my next show, out on June 2nd.

As for external women’s only groups, neither Avivah nor Heather McGregor had an issue with those. In fact Heather holds regular ladies-only get-togethers in the City of London. And this is where women are just like men. Men have known for centuries that there is something relaxing about being among your own sex (for hundreds of years women were not allowed in pubs, and even today are still excluded from some clubs. Men were excluded from childbirth).  I’m a member of a couple of women’s-only groups: one is JAWS – Journalism and Women’s Symposium – the other is 85 Broads, for women in business.

Of course neither men nor women should network solely with their own sex. If you do that you’re excluding the potential help of a lot of people. But there is something comforting about getting together from time to time with a bunch of other working women. We may gripe a bit. But we make useful connections too.

Addendum: since I published this post last week, I've had a tweet from a woman who said she's landed two jobs directly through an external women's networking group.