I have been working in my chosen field now for about 15 years, and this last year I had a realization about the power of women’s networks in my profession.
Over the years I became increasingly conscious of the male-only networks created in my profession and how powerful those networks are.
I began to pay more attention to the work lunches that women are never invited to. The colleagues who belong to men-only clubs and have work-related functions at those places. The various sporting events that women could theoretically be invited to but simply never are.
In my early years I didn’t realise how commonplace these things are. But over time it became more apparent to me. I paid more attention to the groups of male colleagues out to lunch, realising (over time) how rare it was to see a woman included. Male colleagues of my seniority would let slip about being invited by a more senior colleague to become a member of an exclusive men-only club, or to attend a sporting event, or to attend a dinner at his home. I never received these invitations (and, of course, in the case of the men-only club, I couldn’t be invited). Women colleagues and friends told similar stories.
I realized what an advantage these networks create for my male counterparts. These events cement existing relationships and provide the opportunity for new ones. They are a forum to share information but also to blow off steam (something that can be incredibly helpful at times during a stressful career). I should say, these networks don’t just create advantages for these men over women, but also create advantages for these men over men who aren’t considered to be the “right type of guy” for these events (a male colleague, who is gay, commented to me that he is never invited to the blokey all-male lunches that women are also excluded from). I should also say that there are many male colleagues who have been inclusive when it comes to lunches and similar events. However, the existence of those men doesn’t alter the fact that there remains a strong culture within my profession (and many others) of men-only networking, whether it is consciously so or not.
It is easy to feel bitter about these connections – these concrete examples of discrimination that persist in this day and age and continue to obstruct true equality in the workplace.
My revelation, a year or so ago, was that women are increasingly able to marshal their own networks and that we can draw much power from these relationships ourselves, especially as more and more women are in the workforce and are staying in the workforce longer.
Instead of letting the all-male lunches and clubs get me down, I started to work on deepening the connections I already had with women in my profession, and making new connections. How did I do this? Many and varied ways.
There is a group of women at my workplace who have young children and are balancing work and parenting. We have a group email list and try to meet up every few months for drinks or dinner. I try to get to these events – they provide an incredible amount of support from women who know and understand the issues I am facing in my worklife.
I also make an effort to get to know junior women starting out in my profession – I take them out for lunch and keep in touch with them as they are developing in their role. I introduce them to other women.
I tell these women about how lucky we are to have supportive and positive relationships with other women in our profession, and to take advantage of this by calling or emailing any time with any questions or if any help is needed.
When someone rings me and asks for a recommendation for a job, I will go out of my way to recommend other women. I make a point of getting to know the skills and experience of the women around me so I can recommend them when an appropriate request comes my way.
I also make a point of telling more senior men about the wonderful women in my workplace – I try to make sure all the men I work with understand the talented women around them and cannot plausibly say “I know there are good women out there but I just don’t know any of them” (a common response when asked why no women have been put forward for x role or y job).
I prefer these strategies to formal or structured “women’s networking events”. That isn’t to say those events don’t have a place, but for me, the real power is in the informal networks. I enjoy watching these networks grow over time and I have seen the influence of these networks, particularly in the last couple of years as I have become more senior (and as other women my age and stage have become more senior too).
Some of my favourite stories are of women supporting each other in these ways. A friend of mine (a woman) was called by another woman, who asked about a recommendation she had been given for a particularly lucrative role. The person who had been recommended was a senior man who is well known in my industry as a sleaze – overtly and repeatedly. My friend bluntly told the caller that she wouldn’t recommend that person for the role and explained why. Having heard this, the caller said she realised another person had tried to (gently) tell her the same thing about this man, but hadn’t been so direct. She also said she would be choosing someone else for the role as a result.
Another example – a friend of mine who is a surgeon and is the lead in the operating theatre. During an operation some of the other medical staff were making sexist remarks (not about my friend but about a news story dealing with #metoo issues). My friend calmly told them to leave the theatre and explained why – that sexism had no place in her operating room.
I love these stories because they show the power women can harness as they become more senior and how this power can be used in ways that will benefit other women. In each case, other women will reap the rewards of not having to work in an environment where sexist behaviour is tolerated.
Don’t get me wrong – it is important to continue to work to improve inclusivity in our working lives (including taking on the membership of male-only clubs). However, it is equally important to turn our focus to the amazing connections women can make with each other and harness those connections for our collective good. More than anything, my connections with other women have not only assisted me in my professional life but have kept me sane at crucial times. My women colleagues are the best part of my working life, as it turns out.