The importance of women's networks and why you should join one
With a lack of female representation at c-suite level, Molly Raycraft spoke to the women bringing support to fellow female marketers through women’s networking groups
Networking groups can be an efficient way to meet valuable contacts and gain ideas. But for some, female-only networking groups go the extra mile in providing a space for gender issues and equality to be discussed without judgement.
It’s no secret that B2B marketing at senior level is predominantly male – in fact, this year's B2B Marketing Salary Survey revealed female marketers earn, on average, £27,756 less than their male counterparts at board level (and £12,375 less in senior management positions).
Building internal women’s networking groups and acknowledging gender issues within a company can propel awareness, improve the working environment and boost employee confidence. We spoke to leaders of women’s networks and asked why such groups are so important, and how you can start your own.
Senior VP at Ayima
Founder of Women in Digital
After a realisation her industry was dominated by men, Lauren MacPhail decided to establish a networking group specifically for women. Before, she had tried to hire women and minorities and create mentorships, but she decided she could go further – and looked to create a networking group that offered support.
“I wanted to do more to improve the talent pipeline and provide a venue for women to support each other,” says Lauren. “In the Bay Area [San Francisco], women and minority representation in tech has been an ongoing conversation, but I found there was a gap – no support or networking seemed to exist for women in technical roles outside of software engineering.”
Lauren insists tailoring a network to a group with shared experiences is the best way to allow members to discuss and gain advice without judgement – this helps tackle the challenges women face in the digital marketing industry.
“The challenges are not so different from other industries. The talent pipeline is broken. The more technical side of the industry has fewer women entering it because girls and women haven’t been encouraged to science, technology, engineering and mathematical careers or education in past decades. The women who do enter the industry are highly likely to work with mostly male colleagues and a male boss. They are less likely to be mentored or promoted, so women in leadership roles are scarce. It really is a cycle.”
"Ignoring the issue under the guise of normalising won’t remove glass ceilings, address sexual harassment or improve the pipeline”
Lauren isn’t tarring every business with the same brush. “Obviously every workplace is different, but we are at the point where we know gender in the workplace can be an issue. The real work is exploring how it affects each company and determining how to best tackle the issue on a macro scale.”
She explains the gender imbalance in the work place is something that similarly transfers to mixed gender networking groups. “Especially in industries that skew heavily male, the male to female participant ratio is often unbalanced and the topics addressed can make women feel excluded from the conversation. Of course, that’s not always the case, and I participate in mixed-gender networking events as well.”
By operating a female only group Lauren has managed to manoeuvre around many of the challenges mixed gender networks have brought. She elaborates on the benefits of allowing women to discuss their projects, work life and career goals at ease. “They allow those new to the industry to meet women in leadership and find mentors to guide them as well as finding new business and partnership opportunities. They help everyone grow.”
Women’s networking groups are not without their controversy. Some in the industry accuse them of segregating gender and praising women for their gender rather than skill. But Lauren disagrees, she sees them as a real benefit to counter issues surrounding gender. “I don’t think we need to praise women just for existing in an industry that historically skews male. But I do think we need to recognise that some industries don’t treat men and women the same, and provide support systems to help narrow that gap. Ignoring the issue under the guise of normalising won’t remove glass ceilings, address sexual harassment or improve the pipeline.”
Lauren’s tips for starting your own women’s networking group
- Understand what your goals for the group are and invite the right people accordingly – there’s no point focusing on mentorship and inviting those interested in profitability.
- Plan how often your group will gather depending on availability and commitment of your group – monthly and quarterly groups can work quite well.
- Don't use the group as an opportunity to advertise – no one looks forward to a monthly sales pitch.
MD of OgilvyOne UK
Member of WPP’s Walk the Talk programme
The opportunity for women at similar points in their career to come together and offer strong peer support was what attracted Clare to join WPP’s Walk the Talk programme. She brands this as one of the best examples for an effective women’s network. “It became a group of CEOs, MDs and other women in senior roles across the agency network who could relate to and support one another in a meaningful and relevant way.”
During her 14 years at Ogilvy she admits – due to a conscious inclusion of diversity and gender into the company’s dynamic – she has never felt like a minority. But this hasn't deterred Clare from seeing the importance of women’s networks, which she says face the challenge of not only getting behind people to effectively support their goals, but also locating a peer group that will instigate change.
“From discussions I've had with women in the industry, there's still a great need for supportive networking groups in less open office environments. They continue to walk into rooms dominated by males, so for them to be able to discuss certain issues in the space of a women’s network remains just as important.”
Despite Clare outlining a saturation of male CMOs and male-oriented bias in B2B, she insists the primary challenge women’s networks face is positive... “to encourage women to remain in the industry.”
Clare remembers attending her first B2B marketing industry event as MD, a conference that’s stuck in her memory not only for wearing red trousers among a sea of grey corporate suits, but for being one of only two women at the conference.
“While women breaking barriers should be celebrated, I’ve always believed anyone should be appraised first and foremost for their capability"
“It’s those moments where you can turn being a minority into a positive statement. Yes, there's a challenge on gender parity in B2B marketing. Yes, we need to redress the balance. But I can see change is slowly but surely coming, which is an encouraging sign that future generations will have more female role models in senior leadership to aspire to.
“In the wider industry, I believe women’s networking groups provide a safe space to talk over matters, ranging from equal pay to flexible working rights. If women cannot access this, it can be detrimental both to keeping them at your company and to women remaining in the discipline, since they're unable to balance personal and professional lives. I also feel it’s valuable in maintaining a woman’s point of view at a company.”
Clare looks to her own situation – as a mother of two – as an example of how a networking group may be needed for others in the same position. Although Clare says she works in a comfortable environment with flexible hours, she realises others aren’t so fortunate and this is where women’s networking groups can offer support and advice.
However, mentorship is not something specific to women, nor is it something every women wants. Clare is currently a mentor to three people (two female and one male) and agrees some women need mentorship and others don’t. Furthermore, mentors don’t always have to be female. “I think it depends on the challenge they face or what exactly they want to get out of mentorship. If they're seeking advice for gender-relevant struggles at work, a female mentor makes sense. If their objectives are more widely focused on unlocking potential, a male or female mentor factors less into their decision.”
There's a certain ambiguity surrounding networks and what they actually celebrate, but Clare insists it's praising impressive skill sets that sits at the heart of women’s networking groups.“While women breaking barriers should be celebrated, I’ve always believed anyone should be appraised first and foremost for their capability,” Clare explains. “I think when that is complemented by the fact that a trailblazer is a woman, you are putting out a much more holistic view of successful women and you encourage women to reach new heights in their careers.”
Clare’s tips for starting your own women’s networking group
- Aim for a women’s group that is smaller in scale, has a targeted set of objective and provides real substance to the audience it supports.
- Don’t silo women’s groups that aim to offer mentorship – being too specific will deter the next generation.
- Embrace modern technologies (Clare’s Walk the Talk peer group have a WhatsApp group they ask and answer questions on, which has become a valuable resource to her).
- If you’re just starting out, don’t make monetary barriers – people should be able to join and take advantage of benefits with ease.
CMO at Bluewolf
Founder of Women Innovators Network
After witnessing the biggest and most transformational campaigns in Salesforce being led by women, Corinne Sklar – along with chief of staff at Bluewolf Jolene Chan – decided they needed to find a way to get these women together. That was eight years ago, but it’s clear Corinne’s passion for connecting and inspiring women has not dwindled.
“We knew that as a network we could share our best practices, support each other and share stories. At the end of the day – especially when you work in an agency – it’s all about connecting with customers and sharing best practices; it’s just a natural concept. Over the past eight years we’ve been growing rapidly, and now we’re one of the largest women’s networking groups within the Salesforce eco-system globally.”
Corinne is a firm believer that women’s networking groups carry an important support system for women wanting to enter the c-suite – an area where the gender ratio is extremely male centric. “But how do you break the glass ceiling?” exclaims Corinne. “That’s what we started out with and then we started to realise it was also about bringing women with you, it’s not enough to get there alone, you’ve got to bring the next generation with you and pull other women who are starting their careers and bring them up. You can’t be what you can’t see. Men do a lot of networking with men but women need to help each other as well. Networking may not be different from how I network with a man but we need that camaraderie to support each other. So networking is a different environment and way for us to support each other.”
Lack of female representation in the c-suite
Corinne explains that marketing is one of the most nurturing places for women but it too, still presents some challenges. “How do women in marketing become CEOs and what’s the path of a female marketer to expand and really jump from CMO to CEO?” she asks. “I think this is one of the biggest challenges women marketers have, is being able to stand outside of marketing. How do they break that glass wall?” According to Corinne, despite a lack of females at c-suite level, statistics show that the male to female ratio is near-equal at junior level, with females potentially having the advantage in numbers. “The minute you get to director-level and above you see a drop off of women in those roles.”
Female networking groups support women who are potentially falling off before reaching the c-suite and Corinne is adamant that this dialogue is essential to any shape and size of business. “You can’t erase gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference. These things are there wherever we go, and to think that those social areas don’t have a place in business is ignoring that we’re all human beings. There's unconscious bias out there and we run into them wherever we go. It’s not about saying we shouldn’t acknowledge this, it’s about saying that these biases do exist in our daily lives. It’s about dialogue and it’s about increasing the diversity in our workplace because by increasing diversity we increase a better outcome for our businesses. Not having a dialogue around these things and ignoring isn’t helping. It’s not about making people feel bad, it’s about acknowledging diversity.”
A line that Corinne reiterates is: “You can’t be what you can’t see”. She questions how a woman can feel inspired to attain a role that has never had an established female role model – it also begs the question of whether a woman gaining a job in the c-suite is even that pioneering in the 21st century.
“It allows women to have a role model, but it also allows them to feel that there is a path [to the c-suite] and that there’s someone who can advise.” Corinne dismisses the idea that mentorship is just for juniors wanting to rise through the ranks, senior roles are equally looking for support and a female networking group can help build camaraderie."
Corinne is a strong advocate for mentorship of women. “We need to support women in business and one of the things I’m really passionate about is how we look at our policies and make sure they support and meet the needs that affect women, whether it’s start time, maternity leave and paternity leave as well. I think the role that women have as they continue to expand in leadership roles is to really review and reflect on business policies that might discourage women from continuing up to c-level positions or have a bias against women.”
"...if you really want to participate and build a network, it takes work and it takes development and the nurturing of those relationships"
It has been questioned that the exclusion of men from networking groups prevents awareness of gender issues in the workplace. But Corinne says mixed gendered and female groups don’t differ that much, apart from opening up dialogue around issues specifically related to women that are somewhat obsolete in mixed gender networking – something she says will change as women expand in the c-suite but for now it maintains a business as usual stance.
“The goal is to keep the dialogue going through the channels Bluewolf and IBM have in our networks. We’re constantly encouraging them to build relationships, we’ll meet manually at the group, people come back together, it really is about making those initial connections and walking away with business cards and lunch meetings. Networking takes two not one: if you really want to participate and build a network, it takes work and it takes development and the nurturing of those relationships.”
Corinne looks at criticism of female networking groups as an opportunity to increase dialogue and awareness around gender issues. “Anything that drives dialogue around diversity in the work place is a positive thing. Women don’t get recognised enough sometimes, we need to support each other and I’d rather have dialogue than no dialogue. For example, when 90% of people on an executive board are male, who are you going to talk to, how do you build confidantes and support when you have no one around you? Networking groups are not about rewarding and patting each other on the back, this is a necessity – we can’t do it on our own.”
Corinne’s tips for starting up a female networking group
- You need to have a vision – establish why you’re bringing people together.
- Half of it is showing up and having a leadership role and deciding you’re passionate around that – if you have that people will come.
- If you want to create a bigger event, partner with other female networking groups.
- You could focus on bringing in celebrity speakers or simply just aiming to swap best practices and meeting new people.
Client director at OgilvyOne UK
Head of Women at Ogilvy
Head of women’s networking group Women@Ogilvy, Nicola says she’s proud to see such strong gender diversity in her workplace. But she knows this isn’t the case for many women in organisations. “I speak to women who still speak of issues that echo Mad Men-esque scenarios,” she explains. “Yes there's more awareness now, but there is still a long way to go. All professional networks celebrating diversity are developing. The great change is these groups raising issues and making a real difference in gaining awareness."
Nicola outlines the lack of female role models as a key challenge to tackle – something she says is an indicator of where we are in the cycle of change in regards to gender in the workplace. “Right now, the spread of female talent isn’t wide enough. Women look ahead and don’t see a path to higher leadership or any drivers to get them excited about their career prospects. There remain few mentorship opportunities.”
Although Nicola recognises that mentoring is a personal choice, she says there's more of a demand for female mentors due to their increased availability. “With more women taking on leadership roles and achieving a balance, there are now more role models for younger women.”
But the problem is not just in the workplace but in schools, where there appears to be a lack of understanding around the opportunities for women in the industry. “Even in cases where an agency is 54% female to male, they predominantly work in client services or account management, before dropping off mid-career,” Nicola explains. But she’s not lost hope: she says these trends are slowly changing and women’s networking groups are helping this discussion.
"...a women’s network still provides a space for women to talk about issues that affect them specifically – whether it’s parenting, health, wellness or flexible working”
Nicola explains providing speakers and the skill-sharing aspect of groups has helped to bring women a route to confidence – something she believes is the biggest benefit of women’s networking groups. “It should be a place where you can ask any question and know you will receive support. It’s tools like these which I feel women in the industry should all be able to access. Beyond enriching women’s careers, just being part of the network brings a sense of belonging. You can forge lasting friendships and interact with people who have like-minded challenges and ambitions.”
However, Nicola warns that when it comes to reaping the benefits of the group’s connections, you get back what you put in. “If you actively participate and come into the group with a proactive mindset, you will get enriching relationships and experiences out of it. These could be friends, career-length contacts or even new clients. If you shy away from engaging, you will ultimately have a less rewarding experience.”
Nicola admits that how a women’s networking group differs from a mixed gender group is entirely down to individual networks and men don’t always have to be excluded. “In my eyes, you can have a women’s network that welcomes the contribution of men and their voice in the conversation. But I definitely feel a women’s network still provides a space for women to talk about issues that affect them specifically – whether it’s parenting, health, wellness or flexible working.”
Women’s networking groups have faced criticism for allegedly segregating women and offering praise based on gender, but Nicola believes praise is, and should, focus on achievements. “But don’t let that discourage hailing them as female role models, especially since historically there have been so few in this arena” she adds. “Herald these women for their accomplishments first and foremost, and then acknowledge them breaking the glass ceiling to further inspire women everywhere.”
Nicola insists women’s networking groups are relevant to every business – whether you experience issues surrounding gender or not. “Here at Ogilvy, I feel really fortunate that we have a welcoming environment and an existing women’s network, but that shouldn’t lead to complacency. There's still work to be done and I believe women’s networks should continue to be hailed as industry examples for what the norm could be in the future.”
Nicola’s tips for starting your own women’s networking group
- Decide what the role of men in your group or with your group is.
- Find core group members who are passionate, driven and prepared to put the time and effort in.
- Meet frequently until you establish what your plan and objectives are – after this you’ll be able to maintain a more remote network.
- Be ready for the network to pose some issues in the wider organisation, don’t wait for an issue to arise before setting up a women’s network.