Why women-only networking groups are failing us

It was a busy week. I had deadlines to meet, projects to advance and billable hours to work. But when my online calendar beeped that winter morning, giving me two hours’ notice about a women-only networking meeting, I figured I had better attend.

The reason: I had something specific I needed help with and I wanted to get some ideas from the group.

The event kicked off the way many women’s networking meetings do: with “sharing.” One by one, we went around the room and told the group how we were doing. I, along with several other women, made specific “asks” of the group — for introductions, connections, clarity, etc. These specific asks were glossed over. After the sharing, we had a general discussion about the challenges of running a business and then offered our “takeaways.” Then it was time to leave.

Some people returned to their offices with food for thought. Others left feeling “inspired.” Few of us left with the specific assistance we’d been looking for.

The really sad thing? Many of the women later said that the meeting was “great.” And that tells me one thing: when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of women’s networking groups, we don’t set the bar high enough. And because we don’t understand what a powerful network can truly do for us, we accept — and continue giving our time — to events that may feel good but don’t actually get us anywhere.

There is a wealth of research suggesting that despite our efforts, networking continues to pose serious challenges for women. It’s not that we aren’t doing it. Women are attending more networking events all the time, and the number of women-only networking events grows every month.

Yet, in a recent study, Australian academic Athena Vongalis-Macrow found that while 67 per cent of professional women surveyed knew that networking was important, their “networking was ineffective to help them achieve their aims.”

I belong to a few excellent women’s networking groups – and I’ve experienced some very poor ones. The experience I describe above touches on some of the key reasons why many women’sonly networking groups are failing us.

Too much conversation, not enough action
Many devote too much time to griping about the problems we face and far too little time on providing real, practical solutions to those problems. As a women’s leadership coach, I firmly believe in the power of authentic conversation and sharing — but focusing solely on the challenges of business soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An “ethos of sharing” versus the specific ask
One of the reasons women’s networking doesn’t often get us the results we want is that we’re not clear and specific about the type of help we need. I would argue that a group worth its salt should encourage every woman in attendance to have a specific goal for the meeting — a question they need answered, or an introduction they need made.

Offering emotional support when practical support is needed
We’re in networking groups to network. If you haven’t left a meeting with a plan to make and receive at least one introduction or follow-up meeting for one of your fellow attendees, you’re not using your time strategically. Consummate networkers “work” their network. They put skin in the game: they make appropriate introductions when they can, and ask for introductions when the time is right. They don’t just ask for emotional support.

In the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum suggests the gender gap won’t close for another 81 years. When I look at the trials our world is facing (economic disparity, environmental degradation and war), it’s clear that the world needs more women’s influence, not less. Powerful networking is a great way to expand our influence, close that gap, and enhance our world outlook quicker.

If only women’s networking groups could keep up.

Eleanor Beaton
About Eleanor Beaton

Eleanor Beaton is a writer and consultant who has helped some of Canada's most successful women entrepreneurs build influence and make an impact through courageous and unforgettable storytelling.

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