Most business leaders like to imagine that their organizations are fair and just—that every employee has an equal opportunity to achieve career success, given their own merits to succeed. Yet, the rates of women in upper levels of business demonstrate that not every company is as equitable as it might assume. Despite representing roughly half of the American population—and holding over half of all higher education degrees—only 44 women sit as leaders of Fortune 500 companies, and only two of those are women of color.
Admittedly, the current representation of women in business leadership positions is outstanding considering how recently the figures totaled zero. Though the first Fortune 500 female CEO was named in 1972, by 1980 there was once again no women within these companies’ leadership teams. Worse, women of color did not see any representation in leadership ranks until 1999.
Still, for many women, the revolution has felt slow and uneven. Female students in business classes, women at the earliest stages of their careers and high-powered women working their way through business leadership ranks need all the support they can get to achieve equal opportunities as their male counterparts — which is why strong business networks are among the most useful tools for women in business.
How do women network?
Men and women tend to employ different methods in their professional networking efforts. A study from the American Kellogg School of Management surveyed the emailing habits of MBA students and followed those students into their careers to determine their success. The research found that the male students who were able to obtain positions with more authority and higher pay positioned themselves at the center of a vast professional network, developing strong relationships with individuals known for maintaining large numbers of diverse contacts.
To attain the same level of success as these men after graduation, female students need to employ a similar strategy—with a crucial difference. In addition to placing themselves at the center of a broad network, women need a small circle of close female contacts within their profession. Female students who networked identically to male students tended to fall into the lowest category of authority and pay. However, cultivating a close group of female professional contacts helped young professional women identify and navigate the cultural and political hurdles facing them in the workplace.
So, how does a female professional develop this close circle of contacts? She does so through a women’s networking group, of course.
What is a women’s networking group?
A women’s networking group is a gathering of women who want to find success in the workplace. Women’s networking groups come in all shapes and sizes. An organization might have an informal women’s networking group in which some female employees regularly meet for lunch with one another. There are also several all-women professional associations that strive to facilitate connections amongst women in the workplace. Generally, women’s networks have one or more of the following three goals:
Sharing strategies for navigating difficult workplace situations. These women’s networking groups tend to include members of similar roles and positions.
Diversifying connections for a broader professional network. These networking groups might be more formal and include professional organizations like a career network.
Offering access to resources that might be difficult for female professionals to acquire. Some examples of valuable resources include financial or legal advice, resume help, and mentorship opportunities.
Where do women find networking groups?
Many large institutions and organizations already have women’s groups operating. Sometimes, women’s groups will automatically extend invitations to new female employees; in other cases, young professionals will need to inquire about all-women groups from female coworkers. Women can also apply to join local, regional and national all-women associations to find like minded female professionals in their area.
Some female professionals might not find any existing women’s networking groups to connect with. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to create a women’s networking group from scratch. Women might start by enrolling in a high-quality women’s leadership program, where they are certain to connect with fellow ambitious women. In the workplace, female professionals might need to seek approval for their group from HR or business leadership. Developing a mission statement for the group and recruiting high-level female executives can help a new women’s networking group get off the ground.
What are the benefits of networking groups for women?
As mentioned above, maintaining a close circle of female colleagues can be essential for women’s careers. This could be because women’s networking groups offer benefits such as:
Normalizing experiences. It is common for women to feel isolated in the workplace, especially in industries with poor diversity and inclusion. By connecting with fellow female professionals, women can avoid feeling like the “only one” and find empathy and support for many of their experiences.
Providing support. Not every contact in a professional network has the resources to help an individual woman thrive, but they might know someone else who does. By sharing goals with one another, professional women can bring one another closer to career success.
Equalizing roles. Many female professionals are eager to see more workers like themselves in their ranks. Thus, women in authority positions who connect with other women will often promote those women, empowering them with more effective positions in the workplace and ensuring they earn equitable pay.
How can women use networking groups effectively?
A female professional who wants to reap the benefits of a women’s networking group needs to do more than join up. Women need to actively engage with their peers within the group to improve their knowledge and skill in ways that will impact their performance in the workplace. An expert on women’s networking groups, Susan Markham writes that women can enjoy the benefits of women’s networking by focusing on the three Cs: connections, capacity and confidence.
Connections. Making connections is the objective of most networking endeavors. Women benefit especially from connections with other working women because of the unique obstacles female professionals face in the workplace.
Capacity. In engaging with a women’s networking group, female professionals should look for ways to improve their professional skills. For example, through a networking group, a worker might develop a mentor-mentee relationship that will guide that worker toward practices and processes that improve their professional performance.
Confidence. Many women’s careers suffered under the COVID pandemic, and many female professionals continue to struggle to reach security in the workplace. One study found that about half of all women are not confident in their future employment. Through women’s networking groups, women should strive to find strategies to build confidence in themselves and their careers.
A gender gap persists in American workplaces, and gendered networking opportunities could be one way to cause that gap to narrow. Beginning in business school and continuing for the rest of their careers, female professionals should engage with all-women networking groups to improve their career prospects and strengthen their community of women workers.