MONDAY 16 JAN 2017 5:22 PM


Workplace diversity has come a long way since the white, male-dominated preserves of the 20th century and before. Gone are the days of bowler hats and umbrellas ruling Monday morning tube train carriages; commuter trains and cars now carry all ethnicities, genders, races and classes. Yet research recently published by social enterprise, Women Ahead, questions the effectiveness of internal networks developed specially to foster diversity in the boardroom, where the picture is not always so mixed.

The study, which looked at 31 global organisations employing more than 1.77m people worldwide in more than 150 countries and across 14 sectors, indicates such networks foster more relaxed environments. However it also revealed that many lack the funding and resources to reach their full potential.

Head of research at Women Ahead, Jane Booth says, “There is a view from some women and men that women’s networks are an unfair intervention that simply serves to highlight the gender gap – however, men are more often than not already surrounded by other men within an all-male, or virtually all-male, group.”

And, in the research conducted by Women Ahead, male and female workplace relationships show a major contrast. Men, in general, prefer to form larger and more superficial networks and a more comfortable in traditional boardroom environments. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to develop and sustain closer and more personal relationships.

Women Ahead argue that networking events, and the language used in such environments, needs developing to reflect this preference. For example, findings suggest how the word 'balance' might be further used, in an effort to achieve gender parity.

Booth says, “Our research reveals that women have a strong unease and dislike for ‘networking’ and are frequently fearful at the thought of walking into a room of people who they don’t know, and feeling there is an expectation to ‘go forth and connect’. So while there is clearly a recognition that women and other minority groups need something different from the current norm, the opportunities provided are still often based on the traditional networking format.”

The research also suggests that belonging to a homogenous network is beneficial for a woman’s personal and professional development. Booth continues, “Women’s networks are necessary to provide a space for women, who are in a minority at work, to have a voice.”

Yet Women Ahead's findings also recognise that, as workplaces develop away from their traditional state, women’s networks may become obsolete. The pressure women currently face may therefore become more relevant for both genders. Some women posited that such measures in fact pigeonhole women, with no attempts made to strike a balance.

“As networks grow and mature, there is recognition of the increasing need for these issues to become more mainstream and for gender parity not just to be seen as a ‘women’s issue’,” says Booth.

CEO of Women Ahead, Liz Dimmock, says, “Among those interviewed, networking was cited as the most feared developmental challenge for an aspiring leader and yet networks were not addressing this learning issue. We suggest that the goals of networking should move more towards making three quality connections that you will follow up after an event, rather than many that you will not. This way of working is likely to suit women – and many men – better.”