In light of Women’s History Month, I have asked myself the question: why shouldn’t men attend women’s networking events? I recently attended a women executive’s event where one male executive coach attended regularly. He stood out like a sore thumb, and seemed a bit proud of that fact. Despite the fact that he was welcomed and included, that he participated in discussions and was engaged, it just felt “off.” Is that some hidden reverse bias on the part of the women present? It’s true that that the women in attendance were a good match for his ideal clients, but it was obvious that he remained an outsider—an interloper.
I have seen this play out in other networking groups, such as the Women in Technology, where both women and men from the executive women’s teams, as well as male representatives of sponsoring organizations, would attend. The men were there as allies and supporters, but it diminished the woman-to-woman engagement. Again, I wondered, is this reverse discrimination? Am I being closed-minded? Are we women just being overly sensitive now?
My research says, no. The Spidey senses that say this is not actually helpful is spot on. Here’s why:
Men and Women Network Differently
Men and women work differently and they network differently. That’s no judgement on one approach being better or worse. It’s just different. Brian Uzzi, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the American Kellogg School of Management, analyzed over 4,5 million emails of 728 MBA graduates (75 % men, 25 % women) to find out which types of networks support their success.
What Uzzi found was that women thrive on different networks than men. Male MBA students with a broad network got jobs with more authority and pay. Women who networked like men, focusing on centrality rather than quality ranked among the lowest in authority and pay.
Successful women, on the other hand, had a very broad network just like successful men but they also had a closer circle of female contacts with whom they could discuss unique problems. The study suggests that women benefit from some kind of inner circle – whose members, at best, have minimal contacts in common.
Women Are Underrepresented Elsewhere
I speak a lot about imposter syndrome, and how it is most prevalent among individuals who are high-achieving to the point of being “first, only or different.” In other words, we rise to a level where we find no peers around us. It is a diversity and inclusion issue, first identified among women leaders. That was the 70’s.
Now women hold 57 % of all jobs worldwide – which, in its core, is a good thing. However, the majority of business worldwide is still represented by men. Still only 29 % of senior management roles worldwide are held by women. As far as Russell 3000 board representation, female representation is barely over 25%, and it's slowing down. Given their male ownership, many companies and organizations don’t consider how women work and network differently than men. They may have an internal women’s ERG, if they are big enough, but women remain a minority in the circles where their influence can be felt.
To be in a group of other women, where, for once, we are no longer the token leader, is an opportunity that is best when it is without interference or interruption. This is not about excluding men, but rather about raising the visibility, confidence and impact of women.
Women Need the Uninterrupted Support of Other Women
At the end of the day, women's networks are crucial for equality. They provide close connections to other women who might encounter similar struggles while still creating a diverse enough environment for personal and professional growth. Or as Brian Uzzi puts it: “[the study] suggests that women face a greater challenge in networking to find professional opportunities – they, more than men, need to maintain both wide networks and informative inner circles in order to land the best positions.” That’s why we need women’s networks without the interference—however well intended—of men.