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Networks at work should transform to make them more effective, says new large-scale global research from Women Ahead.

Do minority networks work for their members, organisations or society? This ground-breaking research examines the value of minority group networks and assesses the effect that the different ways men and women communicate has on traditionally run ‘networking’ sessions. The scope of the research examined the changing language around traditional women’s networks to include men and women in the drive to reach gender parity.

Women Ahead's 'Networks That Work' research programme, which interviewed network heads representing women’s, disability, Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME), LGBT and other networks in 31 global companies, revealed that by making a few changes the networks could work better for their members and organisations.

By applying neuroscience to these large- scale qualitative research findings, the team at Women Ahead has designed International Standards for Effective Networks that can be applied at any stage of a network’s development to maximise its impact on diversity and inclusion, and a range of practical tools to use.

Do We Need Women’s Networks?

Women Ahead, a social enterprise that supports the development of women in sport and business, designs and manages mentoring schemes, workshops and learning materials, offers leading female speakers for events, and carries out research and consultancy.

“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’.”

Women Ahead’s Head of Research Jane Booth said: “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.  Women’s networks are necessary to provide a space for women, who are in a minority at work, to have a voice. However, 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’”.

The research revealed a move towards the use of the word ‘balance’ being used in gender network titles to reflect the modern reality that gender parity needs the support of men as well as women.

In fact, the research found that some people view being part of a women’s network as a barrier to success, by pigeonholing themselves or making themselves stand out. This is despite the fact that women’s networks are the most prevalent form. However, the research also revealed that although many networks are run ‘off the side of the desk’ and not officially recognised as valuable, being part of a network is a positive personal and professional move.

Networking Events to Evolve

The Women Ahead research examined the different ways men and women communicate, and the traditional setup of networking events. Academic research shows that men tend to have much larger, more superficial networks, whereas women form smaller, deeper and more personal connections. The traditional golf day, the boardroom lay-out, the business card swap sessions, the football ‘chat’ around the meeting room - all designed by men, for men for them to do business in the ways in which they feel comfortable.

Many of the events delivered through minority group networks in the research adopted the traditional formula for large-scale networking events with a keynote speaker, Q&A session and ‘networking’ time – despite the knowledge that women generally prefer to communicate in smaller, more reciprocal groups.

Jane Booth said: “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.”

Women Ahead’s International Standards for Effective Networks suggests that networks should move from being a place where people can ‘network’ to where they can connect on a deeper level with fewer people, and also learn the skills of networking in a safe space.

According to CEO of Women Ahead, Liz Dimmock, “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.”

Little Funding and Support

The research found that although networks are seen by heads of diversity and inclusion as a useful tool to reaching their goals, there is little formal financial or human investment into the setup or delivery of networks. The Women Ahead International Standards for Effective Networks suggests that robust evaluation of networks would allow for better business cases to be made and greater support given.

Scope for Research

The research examined 31 global organisations employing more than 1,770,000 (1.77 million) people worldwide in more than 150 countries and across 14 sectors. There are more than 180 networks in operation within these 30 companies. Three cross-sector networks with a combined global membership of over 16,000 were included. Interviews were undertaken with Global Heads of D&I, Heads of HR, voluntary network chairs/co-chairs, network members, network committee members, and network leads.

PwC and HSBC, which benefit from significant internal networks, collaborated with Women Ahead to support this research.

Networks That Work can be found here: http://www.women-ahead.org/networks-research

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