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These are the themes most women hear discussed at women-only leadership conferences. Women-only networking has been around since the early 1980s, but it experienced a recent surge in popularity thanks in part to the widespread influence of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 best-seller Lean In. These days, more than 30,000 Lean In circles meet in 150 countries, and there are countless other more informal women’s networking groups. “When women are in all-women networking groups, they’re on fire,” says Karen Bate, founder of Awesome Women Entrepreneurs in Arlington, Virginia.
For years, that has been the prevailing wisdom. In reality, though, the rise of women-only networking groups may actually be holding women back. Consider this: For every 100 women promoted, 130 men are promoted, according the “Women in the Workplace 2016” report from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org. The report also identifies women networking only with women as one reason for this disparity. According to the report, women are three times more likely to rely on a network of mostly women, while men were more likely to rely on a network of mostly men or a network evenly split between men and women.
[Our members] also see that as long as men are in charge, if we don’t bring them along [and] if they don’t bring us along … nothing will change.
Jennifer Davis, founder, Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network
“If your network is mostly female, you have narrowed your access to senior leadership,” says Alexis Krivkovich, one of the report’s authors and a partner in McKinsey’s San Francisco office. Although women and men are nearly equally represented in the workforce, the number of women in C-suite positions narrows to 20 percent. When women limit their business networks to just women, they also limit their access to people who have the power to open doors for them, Krivkovich says.
“We all seek out individuals who are similar to us and have similar interests,” says Rachel Thomas, president and cofounder of LeanIn.org. “That’s why we see men networking with men, and women networking with women, but unfortunately we still live in a world where there are more senior-level men. It’s critically important for women to network with men as we try to advance.” Otherwise, she says, women could continue to be left behind, and that gap could widen.
Some women’s networking groups are finding ways to bring men into the equation. When Jennifer Davis founded the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network in 2010, only women were invited to join or attend its annual conference. Three years ago, however, the network began to invite men to speak at the conference. Their criterion for speakers? They must be experts in the field who can provide valuable information. “[Our members] also see that as long as men are in charge, if we don’t bring them along [and] if they don’t bring us along … nothing will change,” says Davis, who is Dell’s executive director of global communications.
Women networking solely with other women might also be leading them into gender-segregated occupations that reinforce the gender pay gap, says Lindsey Trimble O’Connor, assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Channel Islands. According to O’Connor, women tend to have information about female-dominated jobs such as nursing, teaching and publishing and refer other women to those jobs, with the result that “[w]omen are shuffled from one female-dominated job to another female-dominated job.”
To break the cycle, Krivkovich says, women need to recognize that while it’s important to have a network of female colleagues, it’s also important to have a network of leaders to rely on for career advice and assistance. Krivkovich’s advice? Women need to think about their network in two distinct ways: as a network of women to share experiences with and as a network of leaders who can help advance careers.
It’s not just women who need to change their behavior to break this cycle but also men and corporations. “In today’s environment, the majority of leadership is still held by men,” Krivkovich says. That means men in leadership positions need to find ways to interact with junior colleagues who don’t inadvertently favor men over women. For instance, a senior male executive can go out for drinks with Bob, and no one will raise an eyebrow. If Sharon goes out for drinks with a senior male executive, however, it may start some colleagues speculating: Is she trying to sleep her way to the top? Is he taking advantage of her? To counter this conundrum, O’Connor says, men in senior positions could agree to meet with junior colleagues only during office hours.
Companies need to do more than just provide opportunities for women to interact with one another. They also need to provide women more access to career development and sponsorship opportunities, Krivkovich says. Yet corporations often conflate those two actions and believe that by doing one (i.e., supporting women networks and communities), they are doing the other (i.e., supplying access to development and sponsorship) when they aren’t.
Jill Santopietro Panall owns an HR consulting firm in Boston and belongs to a local women’s networking group and the local chamber of commerce. Most of her clients, she says, come from personal referrals and contacts made at chamber events, not from the women’s networking group. “We’ve been telling women to talk with other women and to band together,” Panall says, which sometimes sends a message that women shouldn’t bother networking with men. “I don’t think that’s true,” she argues. “I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today without talking with men.”