Women’s networks – what are they good for?

Every now and then I get and invitation for a lunch, coffee, drinks, to participate in the launch of a new women’s network. I almost always attend, never keeping my hopes particularly up. All of the first meetings more or less follow an identical pattern. Now is the time to really do something concrete. Us women have to be better connected. We need strong female networks to get ahead on our careers. We can do it, together!

Then at some point come the arguments that this is really not against men, and not necessarily exclusively to women only, but at least now in the beginning we should get to know each others a bit better and then see maybe later…

There is almost always a lot of talk about what we as women can do together. Often a little bit of housekeeping issues will follow – setting up a mailing list, drafting a calendar for future meetings. In most cases, at least in my experience, this is pretty much it. The latest women’s network venture I was invited to half a year ago consists of professionals already in senior positions in both public and private sectors, all with maddeningly busy schedules. Not all of us are based in Brussels. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all sessions that we’ve had so far. Yet I see fewer people taking part each time we get together. Could it be that we are simply lacking a purpose, an objective, a target?

Given that all of us are driven, goal-oriented and busy, could it be that informal gatherings without clear operational conclusions have lost their allure?

Another experience was set up by colleagues a year ago. I was my own sceptical party-spoiling Cassandra-self from the first meeting on  and vocal about my growing cynicism for these exercises. I got asked in the first meeting where my scepticism stemmed from. I tried to put it into words and felt awful saying those things in the midst of all these excited women. And I hate having been right, predicting what would happen. After four lunchtime meetings things just wilted.

It is possible that as close colleagues we lacked perspective as to what we would have needed in order to provide meaningful value added to advance our careers. Maybe people felt there was no purpose to this group as none of us was from the outside, widening our horizons. Maybe getting together for a monthly chat over lunch was not driver enough.

I feel sorry that this is the case. I know there are many well-functioning women’s networks in existence (so maybe it’s just me who hasn’t been invited to these).  I just cannot put my finger on what the issue is – why so many attempts fail? I don’t know a single man who would hesitate at the invitation to join an exclusive boys’ club, yet I know many women who would rather not join all-female clubs of any kind. Is it possible that some women feel that especially in the case of professional networks it would actually be more beneficial to have co-ed networks rather than all-women?

I often hear that the solution to all boys’ clubs are women’s networks. I am not so sure anymore, though I see the point. If there is a culture of men only clubs, why the hell not have women only clubs? Any action is better than none at all, this became very evident following the last US elections. It’s just exhausting to realise how bloody hard we women have to put the effort to reach the point men have been in for decades – and here I’m referring to the feverish networking and campaigning.

Are women’s networks the right way – or any way to advance careers? Do they have added value? I am still hopeful that the Brussels-based high-level network will prove to be successful, although I am hearing noises that people would want us to actually do something, instead of just talking shop. In the meantime I take it as it is – a great way for me to meet new people and broaden professional horizons. And there sometimes is a free lunch involved.

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