All girls together: women in business networks

In the ongoing struggle to reach the top in the male-centric workplace, women’s networks are helping them break new ground, as Tara Craig reports.

Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard (HP) brought together almost 140 women from 24 countries. They spent three days together in Sofia, Bulgaria, brainstorming, benefiting from the hindsight of the company’s senior women and, memorably, being beaten by birch twig-wielding children – apparently a Bulgarian New Year tradition. The purpose of the event was to develop opportunities for women and to build a community of leaders throughout Europe and Africa.

But why do successful women at a major technology company feel the need to come together in this way?

Ongoing struggle

This week marks International Women’s Day, first celebrated in 1908 when 15,000 New York women marched through their city demanding shorter hours and better pay. In 2008, ‘women in business’ remains as much an issue as ever, hence women still meriting, and needing, their own networks. Things have certainly improved since then, but in terms of women in the workplace, as Cathy McNulty, vice-president HR for Europe the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) HP, says: “The journey never ends. We never reach a point where we can say: ‘OK, we’ve done that, it’s over’.”

McNulty also points out that although most organisations do hire a large number of women, the issue today is knowing how to fully utilise their skills and capabilities. So while there are plenty of women in the workplace, few of them make it right to the top, hindered by male-centric working habits built up over the past 40 or 50 years.

Cranfield School of Management’s 2007 Female FTSE 100 revealed growth in the number of women in non-executive roles, but a fall – to its lowest level in nine years – in the number of women executive directors. And there are just 13 women among FTSE 100 executive directors today – a paltry 3.6%.

Male domination

One of the issues here is that the board has traditionally been the preserve of the old boys. They know each other from their schools, their pubs, and their private clubs. And women either can’t or don’t want to be part of those environments.

And however much we talk about sexual equality, there’s no denying that men and women are different. They think and act differently, and they certainly communicate differently. Only women trying to make it in a male-dominated workplace by pretending to be ‘one of the lads’ will do their business networking over a pint.

This is where women’s networks come in, as they provide an alternative to an aspect of business life seen by some women as alien, and even intimidating.

How they work

Women’s networks can take many forms. They can be internal, industry-specific or pan-industry. Some are more formal than others, some are defined by career stage, others are open to all. But what they have in common is a desire to provide a forum where women feel at ease talking about their issues and aspirations a place where they are happy to talk about what went wrong, and what can be learned from their mistakes – something men will rarely do in public. provides just such a networking service for the women occupying a paltry 20% of the UK’s IT workforce. Director Maggie Berry says: “Our events are like a breath of fresh air for these women.” They’re formal, conference-style events, aimed at giving women something to walk away with, be it a new skill, improved confidence or increased knowledge of a particular area of business.

Berry advocates “networking in context”. A fan of networks herself, she belongs to several, using each of them for something different, and recommends knowing what you want from each network – for instance, to progress your career – before joining. And while these events are planned with women in mind, Berry says: “I’d really like it if more men came along, because I think they might become more aware of some of the issues that their female colleagues are facing.”

Internal networks can be powerful tools in terms of identifying and promoting existing talent. Business conglomerate GE takes its women’s network very seriously, regarding it as a business within a business, and aligning its annual strategy to that of the company. While this network’s ultimate goal is to develop the female leadership pipeline and increase the number of women in senior positions, it is also used as an additional multiplier in the business when rolling out new initiatives. It organises special sessions on key topics and asks members of the network to drive these forward as part of their annual agenda.

As well as giving the company a window on its female talent, as Cora Koppe-Stahrenburg, HR leader for central and eastern Europe at GE Money, points out: “Taking an active role in managing the network can be invaluable for women who are not yet in a leadership role. It can give them their first leadership experience – within a safe, controlled environment.” Koppe-Stahrenburg is keen on women’s networks because “women may be good social networkers, but they are not natural business networkers. They tend to rely on their own strengths to move a project forward. Men more naturally involve others”.

HP’s women’s networks have access to cutting edge technology, including Halo rooms (collaboration studios for simulating face-to-face business meetings across long distances), which the German network recently used to ‘meet’ its Indian counterparts.

Network member Claudia Martens says: “It was interesting to hear that they have the same challenges, and were asking the same questions about managing work and family life, and developing work-life balance.”

Reaching for the board

Not a traditional network, but certainly a means of helping women to the top, the FTSE 100 Cross Company Mentoring Programme – or Women Directors on Boards, as it’s more commonly known – was set up to address the scarcity of women directors in top British companies.

Lacking the legislation that in the Nordic countries in particular requires companies to have women make up a certain percentage of their board, British companies appear to be notoriously resistant to opening up these opportunities. In 2004, following the publication of the then latest Female FTSE 100 research findings, a group of chairmen met to discuss the absence of women. When the subject was broached, they replied, almost to a man, that they would love to have more women on their boards, but they just didn’t know where to find them. An initial seven companies signed up, with FTSE 100 chairmen agreeing to mentor women from non-competitive companies. There are now mentoring relationships at 30 FTSE 100 companies, and although not averse to the idea of expansion – the more women mentored, the better – founder Jacey Graham is keen to retain the personal touch that a relatively small organisation allows.

Success stories

As to whether women’s networks are genuinely beneficial to both the company and the individual, there seems little doubt that they work, on a number of levels.

For women keen to progress up the corporate ladder, networks are an invaluable means of ensuring that their talents and people are seen by the right people. They can help with identifying mentors, and even with just meeting other people who might have the same issues.

As Jacqueline DeBaer of the Academy for Chief Executives says: “Networks are a way of meeting the right person in the right place, then using that contact. In a women-only network, it’s easy to build up a good rapport, and from a business point of view, you can then phone them up with a very friendly hat on, and do business.” In women’s networks, too, it’s ok to talk about the issues around balancing work and family – no-one there will see it as a sign of weakness, and many people will empathise.

There is little doubt that women’s networks are beneficial to both the organisation and the individual.

For the organisation, they can prove useful as a recruitment tool, offering the chance to see ambitious staff in a comfortable forum. Even joining a network marks out a woman as keen to get on. HP’s EMEA workforce planning and staffing director, Kate Seeley, says: “I find it a real benefit to have women’s networks. I’m actively recruiting, and I’ve had a number of people come through these networks. When we spot jobs that may be of interest to other women, we bring them to the attention of the network, and encourage people to come forward.”

By encouraging women to join external networks, organisations can benefit from up-to-date market information and fresh skills – and may even find existing employees recommending external network members for vacancies.

For individual women, the networks provide a place where they can let down their guard. They can stand up and admit how difficult they find things, without worrying that it might be held against them. They can benefit from the hindsight and confidence of colleagues, pick up new business skills and even walk away feeling that bit braver.

As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland have just written, “Women’s networks can be a useful start in empowering women and revealing the unwritten rules of the dominant business culture.”

Case study: Hewlett-Packard EMEA Women’s Summit 2008


  • To develop women as leaders and enable HP to correct the imbalance between men and women in senior roles in EMEA countries.
  • To identify insight and skills for producing positive solutions.
  • To ‘learn, lead and teach.’


  • EMEA women of all levels and functions, including 15 from the graduate programme.
  • Attendees were selected according to their leadership potential and commitment to growing their careers at HP. They were nominated by their local HR departments.


  • Workshops, career planning, presentations from internal and external speakers and interaction with senior women.


  • 97% of the participants reported a clear understanding of the next steps to take to advance their careers. A high level of engagement and energy was created and delegates left with increased confidence in HP’s commitment to their career development.

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