By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
In a Forbes piece last month, Stacey Gordon, Managing Principal of The Gordon Group and former President of the National Association of Women MBAs asked why women need women-only networks.
After all, if the majority of powerful people at this point are men, wouldn’t it be wise to network with them? Of course. But there’s good cause to build relationships in a women-focused environment as well. Gordon’s answer is simple and powerful.
Women’s networks are the one place where women don’t face questions about whether they belong, based solely from their gender. She writes, “When we’re not being judged by our actions, our speech, our tone of voice or our discussion of families and babies in business setting, we are able to put those perceived (and in many cases, actual) condemnations aside and get down to business.”
When gender differences are removed from the equation, questions of legitimacy are based solely on your credentials.
“We are judged all the time and we’d like to occasionally be in a place where we are judged less. Or at least judged on criteria that pertains to our jobs rather than to our gender,” she adds.
After practicing law for 20 years, Ida Abbott founded Ida Abbot Consulting, with the goal of helping employers develop and retain legal talent. She believes that women benefit significantly from a gender-specific networking and development initiatives.
First of all, she explains, it provides a safe place to address uncertainties. She says, “If I am having difficulties, are they because I’m doing something ineffectively or inappropriately, or is it because I’m a woman and being seen or treated differently? Many women leaders are treated differently than men (by both women and men), and it’s hard to know whether it’s because you’re a leader or because you’re a woman.”
Additionally, she explains, being in the minority, women feel they are judged more harshly when trying out new techniques. “Even if women might judge each other at work, in a training environment, they tend to be supportive, not competitive,” she noted.
Finally, she said, there are some questions that women are simply uncomfortable discussing with men. These include questions like safety, sexual harassment, and pregnancy. “Like asking a man out or to be a mentor, you may run the risk the man might think you’re making romantic or sexual advances. Women feel more comfortable talking about these issues with other women; they don’t have to explain or justify them.”
Creating a Close-Knit Networking Environment
Next month, Abbott is leading the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women at her alma mater Hastings Law School. Abbott believes that by holding development training in a smaller, gender-specific group, the women attendees form a tighter knit group based on stronger relationships.
She explained, “This intimacy creates a safe place and participants bond almost immediately as they share experiences, practice and compare techniques and strategies, and develop greater confidence.”
Plus, these relationships can prove invaluable business networks down the line. “Participants form a business referral network, sending each other work and clients. This network includes all alumnae of previous year’s Leadership Academies, many of whom return for a special program one day during the course. This network includes women from all over the country in many kinds of firms and practice areas, all of whom are firm leaders.”
Women in-house counsel also attend one full day of the Hastings program. Everyone participates together in exercises and discussions, and they get to know each other as they learn. “They are not hurried and the size of the group is small, so the women can take time to initiate relationships with potential clients,” she added.
Abbott did caution that co-ed networking is, of course, necessary, and gender-specific networking shouldn’t take its place. She explained, “For all these benefits, I think it’s necessary to point out that a firm-sponsored leadership development or training program should not exclude men entirely.”
She continued, “Women and men need to hear each other’s points of view and have dialogues about how to work together most effectively, especially at the leadership level. But women-focused programs (including the one at Hastings) serve a critical need and form an integral component of overall leadership development.”
“Serious business-related networking should not be limited to women. It should be focused on who has the business you want, or the leads to that business. Networking with women is important to build business referral networks, make contacts for the future, and so on, but the focus should be on business, not just gender,” she explained.
Women looking to organize women’s networking or development initiatives should focus on the benefits to their firm. Abbot explained, “Firms are usually supportive of formal women’s networking efforts if they aren’t too expensive or divisive. In asking for support, they should focus less on the emotional support/confidence building aspects and instead emphasize making women more committed to the success of the firm by becoming better rainmakers and leaders.”
“Increasing retention, diversity, business and profits directly benefit the bottom line. If there’s a concern about men feeling left out or ‘discriminated’ against, the women’s initiative can sponsor efforts that include men, like networking programs where men can bring their women clients,” she added.