By Melissa J. Anderson

Professional women are “lukewarm” about the effectiveness of women’s networks, according to a new study out of the Simmons School of Management. Polling over 250 attendees to last year’s Simmons Leadership Conference, researchers found that many women are unsure about the usefulness or direction of women’s networks.

In fact, 79 percent of respondents ranked their women’s networks at “somewhat effective” or “not effective.” And 84 percent described women’s networks as “somewhat effective” or “not effective” at promoting women.

But, the research shows, a there are a few factors that increase the effectiveness of women’s networks. For example, the study says, “there was a very strong correlation between those respondents who were actively involved in their network and those who felt that their network was effective.”

The good news is that they also uncovered a few critical factors that may contribute to their success.

1. Active Participation

According to lead researcher Prof. Patricia Deyton, boosting engagement with the network may be a way to increase satisfaction. About 70 percent of women who answered the survey were not actively involved and the same percentage said they were not sure about the value of the network. This is interesting, considering that the poll was conducted at the college’s conference on women’s leadership last year, where one would expect attendees to be fairly plugged into their companies’ women’s programming.

Deyton said, “We found it surprising that unless women were very heavily involved, they were fairly lukewarm about the value of formal women’s networks. We thought we’d see a general sense in the value of the networks even if they were not actively participating.”

While many people felt unsure about the usefulness of their women’s network, it was clear what kinds of programming provided the most value to survey participants. These include services focused on career building, the survey revealed. The study explains:

“Of particular value are those services directly related to skill-building (training, sharing best practices, mentoring, coaching) and to visibility (exposure to senior management). Social events and assistance with family issues are rated least valuable by all groups.”

“Networking, mentoring, and coaching were mentioned again and again by those respondents whose networks did not provide these activities,” it adds.

2. Firm Infrastructure

Deyton also noted that respondents said the best women’s networks are those with a great infrastructure of support. The study says:

“When analyzed by subgroup, interesting differences were noted on the measures of funding, eligibility, and meeting frequency. Women who rated themselves as actively involved in their network and women who rated their network as “very effective” were more likely to have networks that meet frequently, with open eligibility, and with partial/full funding.”

She explained, “The survey also bore up for us the fact that women’s networks that are well supported and well managed are the most effective.”

“Organizations need to be sure to invest in the management of their network,” she added.

Similarly, the survey revealed that many women felt male participation in women’s networks contributed to their effectiveness. Deyton said she suspects this refers more to the active sponsorship or championing by male executives than simply having men around at meetings.

“The research showed that a very small percentage of men are actually members of these networks. I would ask, what’s their role? When men are actively participating or actively championing, it helps the effectiveness.” As part of a managed program, male managerial support can help boost the legitimacy of a women’s network.

3. Make a Solid Business Case

According to Deyton, making a convincing business case for the women’s network is also critical for receiving the infrastructural support that makes the network effective. “An approach to that is to look at the two goals of the organization (organizational success and employee success) and tie them to how your organization will be well served by taking advantage of all of your employees’ best skills.”

The study concludes:

“When they are in place as part of a larger organizational strategy to support both the advancement of women and the goals of the organization, the investment is evident through steady results. They cannot, however, be a panacea; they are one part of a multi- pronged strategy for women’s success and organizational effectiveness.”

Deyton added, “Make the case that if the network is supported, if you set out how you will accomplish your goals, that it would be good for the organization and good for the women.”