Women need more than networking to further their careers

Do women really need to get better at networking to further their careers? A recent Personnel Today article suggested so, but might the solution lie elsewhere? Maggie Berry, who runs the networking group Women in Technology, investigates.

I read with interest the recent Personnel Today article about women and networking; as a female who runs Women in Technology, a business that involves organising such networking events, I wanted to respond to the piece and defend women and the way in which they network. In particular, the claim that female professionals are perhaps missing out on executive level positions because they have less access to informal networking opportunities, or, worse still, they do not sell themselves as well as they could.

So, do women need help with networking to propel them up the career ladder or does the reason why they are missing out lie somewhere else?

The way in which women and men approach networking is clearly different and, despite efforts to chip away at the glass ceiling, men still outnumber women at board level across the UK. But can this really be put down to men’s bullish approach to business opportunities? I suspect not. And does the notion that female-only networking events can’t put you in touch with senior decision-makers – namely men – hold any weight?

Female-only networking

There have been numerous discussions about whether or not female-only networking opportunities are wrong, but I disagree with those who oppose them. Working in the IT industry has reaffirmed this belief. For female professionals looking to broaden their network and further their careers, networking events can often be male dominated and appear intimidating. Yes, women should have the confidence to hold their own at such events, and those I know certainly do so, but one of the reasons why female-only events are successful is because women not only feel comfortable with one another, but also prefer to be among those who approach networking in the same way. As highlighted in the Personnel Today article: “Women try to personalise the networking relationship by making a connection with the person they are speaking with, whereas men tend to think ‘What do I need to get out of this?’.” Such events can build up confidence, put you in touch with fellow female professionals who have overcome similar issues – for example returning to work following maternity leave – and have also proved instrumental in offering women role models.

Perhaps the issue missed by many who argue against same-gender networking events is that they can co-exist with the more traditional events and online networking. The network of women I work with through Women in Technology certainly attend all events, with their decision being largely based on the subject matter rather than what gender will also be in attendance. The debate that continues about same-gender networking is merely a storm in a teacup, and one that deviates from the pertinent issue of gender equality at board level. So, what’s the solution?

Alternative routes

One, perhaps forgotten, issue is that some people simply don’t want to reach a senior level. This might be because they prefer the more “hands-on” role they are in, or because they can’t reconcile the long-hours culture that comes with senior positions with their home life. But for those who have every desire to rise through the ranks, the reality is that it is difficult. More needs to done to by the Government and industry leaders to highlight the business case for diversity, and to enable women to progress regardless of their personal circumstances.

For instance, there is a lot of talk about businesses offering flexible hours or allowing women with children to work part time. However, despite technological advances allowing for this, it simply isn’t happening. Many women are left to feel that the offer is merely a box-ticking exercise and that if they take this option it is not only frowned upon, but may also jeopardise their promotion or pay prospects.

In keeping with this point, the “motherhood penalty” needs to be eradicated. Employers must take further steps to ensure that women who take a career break are supported and encouraged to return to work – without feeling that their choice to have a family has negatively affected their career prospects.

Certainly, more needs to be done to highlight and celebrate the positive effect that female board members have on an organisation at national level. Several studies illustrate that female executives encourage wider thinking and ideas generation. Only when this attitude filters through a whole company, and management understand and support a diverse team, will we start to see real, meaningful results.

Perhaps the most encouraging initiative to date is the “30 Percent Club” – an organisation backed by Cass Business School – which aims to bring more women onto UK corporate boards by not only providing guidance and support to companies who want to increase their diversity, but also by directly helping women who may be seeking board appointments. Further action by groups such as this will serve to highlight and make change.

Men and women differ, and whether it is their approach to work, networking or even their personal lives, the issue we need to be concentrating on is how we can achieve true equality. Focusing on and debating differences between the two genders won’t solve the issue; only meaningful actions from the top down will. If this happens, Lord Davies’ target of 25% female representation at board level of FTSE 100 companies might not just be a pipe dream.

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