By Elizabeth Harrin (London)

“About 30 years worth of effort has gone into promoting more women into senior leadership,” says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. “We have to stop bringing groups of women together to talk about what we know is going wrong.”

Traditionally, women’s networks have been the ‘answer’ to the issue of getting more women into senior positions. Networks provide the opportunity to, well, network, and to meet and listen to senior women who then become role models. After all, if your after-dinner speaker made it to the top, why can’t you? But according to the women on the podium at a recent event hosted by Morgan Stanley, women’s networks are an outdated concept that do more harm than good.

Wittenberg-Cox co-authored the book Why Women Mean Business with Alison Maitland, and she’s the founder and honorary president of the European Professional Women’s Network (ironically). Speaking at an event called ‘21st Century Leadership: the evolution of corporate culture’ she put the case for an end to women-only networking groups. “We have to convince our companies to stop fixing the women,” she explained. “The underlying assumption with all of those programmes [mentoring, executive coaching, etc] is that there must be something wrong with women.”

It’s a controversial view. The current president of EPWN, Michelle Brailsford, agrees – to a point. “The problem is not ‘fixing’ women,” she says. “So the role of women’s networks today is less about personal development and more about support, sharing knowledge and strategizing. Fundamentally, women’s networks should be more about grassroots efforts to shift corporate cultures – so strategies to ‘fix’ organisations, not women.”

The Value of Women’s Networks

BJ Gallagher, author of The World’s Best Advice From The World’s Wisest Women, says, “There are still certain issues that women deal with at work and it helps to know that you’re not alone.” Twenty years ago, while at the LA Times, Gallagher noticed that the IT department was running workshops for women, under the radar of her HR department. There wasn’t the corporate appetite to run ‘special’ women’s events, but Gallagher realised that it would happen with or without their support. “It’s useful to have a group of women to turn to for tips, strategies, and moral support in the corporate environment,” she says. Shortly afterwards, the LA Times started officially supporting training events for women. Today, the role of women’s groups is still up for discussion. Gallagher doesn’t believe it’s an either/or proposition. “Women benefit from networking among themselves and they benefit by participating in other groups at work as well.”

Billie Williamson, Americas Director of Flexibility and Gender Equity Strategy at Ernst & Young, agrees. “Our research and experience shows us that women need a rich network of mentors, both male and female, to help them break through the barriers to success that they face,” she says. “Professional women’s networks provide a forum where women can connect with each other and find mentors that can encourage them to dream big. Discussions in broader business circles provides a good forum to advance the agenda for women to get into top leadership positions to help grow their companies. Both are important.”

The Drawbacks of Women’s Networks

Women-only groups may have their place, but if women’s ‘issues’ are now business issues, the role of these groups is up for debate. Putting women in a side-lined, under-funded ‘network’ may sound like a good idea, but these groups can result in the important business issues relating to getting more women into senior roles being marginalised. And women-only networks also have their own problems. What do you get with a bunch of women in a room together?

“It is unfortunate that women do not support one another more, or more wholeheartedly, in the workplace,” says gender expert Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Tripping the Prom Queen. “While the workplace is ideal in theory to foster mentoring and friendships among women of all ages often instead there is competition, female rivalry and pseudo friendships. However, all this could be changed if women would coalesce, and women could work together trading experience and ideas.”

Networking Today

“Women take out the strongest link, men take out the weakest,” said Wittenberg-Cox. She added that she believed mixed networking groups were the right way to go internally, but externally women could attend women-focussed groups. “You’ll learn what you need out there,” she explained, while keeping the groups mixed internally means you don’t create silos or a backlash against women.

“I think women still need support from other women unless and until the corporate cultures are transformed and business models have been reshaped,” says Brailsford. “Generation Y women will enter the workforce, having never experienced discrimination, and when they see it, feel it, experience it, women’s networks can provide support and strategies. Women’s networks can provide validation that the feminine way is as valid and effective as the masculine way.”

The role that women’s networks have to play in shaping careers and changing the existing business models is evolving. Perhaps we are shifting away from women in a room bemoaning the difficulties of ‘being a woman’ – if we were ever there. Today’s networks need to take a different perspective as their starting point. “Women’s networks do need to focus more on strategies for shifting attitudes and beliefs, strategies for revamping selection and talent management processes and strategies for shifting corporate cultures,” says Brailsford. “And these strategies need to be worked on collaboratively with other networks – not just internally – and together with men!”

The role of women’s groups is evolving. What do you want to get out of yours?