The Wall Street Journal reported on a Simmons School of Management survey of 166 female professionals, all of whom had women’s support groups at their workplace. The news was quite disheartening in terms of the overall attitude toward the groups, participation and results.
But first the good news: what worked. The women who said they were actively involved in the women’s networks and thought they were very effective described these characteristics of the groups: They met frequently, had financial support from the company – and they were open to both men and women.
Now the bad news. 29% of the women responding were not involved in any workplace women’s network. Most said they didn’t have the time. Other reasons given were they didn’t share the network’s goals or they didn’t see the value or they weren’t eligible. Another 16% beyond those 29% were a member of a network at their organization but rarely got involved. And of those belonging, more than 75% found their networks only somewhat or not at all effective in meeting the group’s goals. Goals most often included networking, retention and promotion of women and professional development.
What are we to conclude? Perhaps the formation of many women’s networks is still a matter of lip service on the part of senior management, or at least believed to be by many women. Maybe they are getting mixed messages: "We’ll let you form women’s networks, but you’ll be rewarded by other uses of your time." And if the more senior women are not committed to regularly attend, younger women may take their lead from them or feel the value is much reduced without the mentoring possibilities from more experienced professionals.
Going back to the networks that were effective, the reasons are no surprise. For women’s networks to be taken seriously in a still male-dominated culture as far as clout is concerned, there has to be solid and visible support from management, and that includes financial support as well as praising and otherwise recognizing the active members of the networks and their accomplishments. Frequent meetings are needed to establish bonds and trust and build confidence among members.
And, I think, very important (as I have said for many years), men must be part of the process. They need to be welcomed to help and sponsor the women as well as to learn from them. Attending some of the meetings will enable them to better understand how diversity strengthens the organization and what the obstacles are. Gender separation is not a long-term solution. And generationally there are different views on gender separation. To generalize, the Gen Y/Millennials and youngest Gen Xers don’t recognize the gender differences as much as the older generations and have different expectations about how they will be treated.
I hope to see women adjust their approach and attitudes toward women’s networks and get real buy-in from male colleagues so they can be more effective in reaching stated goals and the day when they will no longer be considered necessary because the goals have been achieved.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot www.pdcounsel.com