We don’t need all-female networks any more, right? Wrong.

To mark gender pay gap day, my next few blog posts will highlight some of the issues and what we can do about it

By Angela Bradbury on 10th November 2017

Today, 10th November, is Equal Pay Day.  Unfortunately, this is nothing to celebrate.  It’s the day beyond which women work for free for the rest of the year, due to the gender pay gap.  It’s the same as last year.  In fact, at the rate we’re going, women won’t get equal pay for equal work for another 170 years.  170 years.

So, to highlight some of the issues at play here, and some of the things we can all do about it, my next few blog posts are going to be on this topic.  Today, I’m writing about female networks and mentoring programs: why they’re necessary, and what makes a great one.

Firstly, what is networking?  I’ve written about this before – it’s often considered to have useless, even slightly slimy connotations.  If you’re envisioning an exhausting evening of swapping business cards with as many people as you can, that’s not what I’m talking about.  For networking to be productive, it should be meaningful interactions where you exchange information and develop relationships.  Good networking is facilitated by a group being interconnected, not just a one-time collection of strangers.

Second, what is mentoring?  This is also something I’ve written about, to challenge the image of a young hero and their wise old grandfather figure (Dumbledore, Yoda, Rafiki, Gandalf…).  I believe it’s more helpful to build relationships with a number of people who are more experienced than you in a few different dimensions and can each help you with different challenges, than a single all-knowing guru.

So with that in mind, do women really struggle to find those meaningful interactions in interconnected groups, or those mentors?  Sadly, it seems the old boys’ networks are still alive and well.  An INSEAD study of Wall Street analysts found that while there is no gender gap in the number of connections with senior executives male and female analysts have, the male analysts get more help from their senior connections than the female analysts do.  So even in contexts where women theoretically have the same access to those who can offer advice and introductions as men, it’s harder for them to reap the same benefits.

Some of the issue is that women are underrepresented at the top of every industry, so while there’s no shortage of male connections for younger male colleagues, female-female mentoring relationships are more scarce.  This is exacerbated by the pressure that women in leadership positions are under to continually prove themselves at work, as well as often doing the majority of housework once they finally get home, so they simply have less time to mentor younger colleagues.  Why is this important?  It’s well-documented that people are more likely to hire, befriend and help people who are similar to themselves, including in gender.

Mike Pence famously does not dine alone with any woman who isn’t his wife.  That might sound extreme, but there are lots of others who do so less explicitly, by shying away from spending social time alone with a colleague of the opposite gender, perhaps even unconsciously.  With allegations about Weinstein, MPs and others surfacing in large numbers with the MeToo campaign, it’s right that we take seriously the issue of men abusing their positions of power to harass or assault women.  But preventing men from spending social time with women isn’t the answer.  When I was a 22-year-old management consultant, one of the Partners I worked with made a point of carving out some one-on-one time with graduates staffed on any of his projects.  My male colleagues were invited to a post-work beer with the Partner, while I and my female colleagues were invited to a mid-afternoon ice cream.  Not only did that feel patronising, but it also restricted the amount of time we had available to talk.  When that happens systemically, across industries and companies and contexts, no wonder it all adds up to men forming stronger mentoring relationships with other men.

Finally, there’s the issue of simply feeling like you’re not meant to be there.  Going to conferences is tiring enough without looking around and seeing nobody who looks like you (who isn’t serving coffee).  It’s hard to get the energy to go and network when questions like “are you in HR?”, “are you and your cofounder more than just cofounders?” and “are you sure you’re in the right room?” are par for the course.  (Genuinely, that last one was asked of me when I was at a breakfast for business development strategies, when there was a simultaneous breakfast on diversity in tech happening in another room.)

So, yes, we do still need female-only and female-focused networks and programs.  Having worked in male-dominated industries all my adult life (physical sciences, management consulting and tech), I’ve benefitted from great women’s networks including Ada’s List and Rungway online, TLA Women events, being part of Angel Academe’s mentoring program, and making connections through Blooming Founders, SheWorx and AllBright.  I know friends who’ve started and gotten a lot out of LeanIn circles.  And lots more.

For me, what this boils down to is sincere and productive interactions.  If you’re looking to get involved, these are my 3 golden rules that I believe make a great network:

  1. Mutual reward.  For any relationship between two people to be sustained, both sides must be getting something of similar value to them out of it.  A good network is a large number of relationships between people who can usefully trade time, learnings, introductions and so on.  To achieve mutual reward, networks must have specificity around what outcomes should be - drinks events where the aim is simply to meet people make it difficult to feel like you’re getting something tangible out of it.  Setting an intention of, say, educating each other about business development tricks, or brainstorming ideas for new initiatives, is much more productive.

  2. Regular contact.  If you meet someone once and never hear from them again, you’re unlikely to think of them if an opportunity arises where you could help.  To achieve regular contact between members, networks must be specific about who they’re for - general ‘women in business’ type groups are too broad for people to feel a genuine sense of shared experience or goals.  Having an industry focus makes it more likely that people will bump into each other time and time again, strengthening the sense of community.  Of course, regular events, bulletins and online forums also help people stay in touch.

  3. Discipline.  There should be mechanisms by which the above are enforced, ideally by an application process (even if basic) and someone to moderate events.  This is usually pretty labour-intensive, so the best networks tend to be those with a substantial team of organizers, each of whom can dedicate significant time to the network.

So, if you're a woman, I strongly urge you to seek out good female networks that are relevant to you.  If you can't find one, consider starting one.  If you're a man, think about the questions you ask of women you meet at conferences, and check yourself on whether you would ask the same question of another man.  And please, seek to spend equal time helping women in your professional network as you do other men.

Angela Bradbury is the Founder and CEO of tech startup Chime Advisors, connecting businesses with experts via an online platform.  She was previously Head of UK for Silicon Valley, Y Combinator startup Homejoy, a consultant with McKinsey & Company, and a Natural Sciences graduate from Cambridge University.