Out With the Old Boys - Networking for Senior Women Executives

Would you, or fellow female executives in your company, feel comfortable or interested in a weekend executive retreat with an all-male management team? Do you, or other senior women managers in your company, have the time and opportunity to build and nurture a meaningful informal network, sharing skills, experience and information? If the answer to these two questions is 'not really', and you are looking to advance your career or those of women in your company, then read on...

by Jane Banham
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The figures are repeated and retold… only eight women at the head of Fortune 500 companies in early 2005. It was a 'record-breaking' nine until recently when Carla Fiorina lost the CEO seat at Hewlett-Packard. Things just do not seem to be getting any better; and as indicated by the Feminist Majority Foundation Research Center some years back (www.feminist.org), "at this rate it will take until the year 2466 before women reach equality with men in the executive suite".

No doubt, these continuing trends have a lot to do with habit, policy and lack of corporate will… but for today we will not delve into the 'how and why' of the relatively small place given to the 50% of the world's population to have a meaningful role in the world's goings on - whether she be at a governmental or corporate level, or within her local community.

On the corporate agenda, we can reflect on some of the particular operating mechanisms, different for men and women, which can bring strength to women's march into the boardrooms of the world. One of these is networking, and the fact is that few women will make it into that boardroom chair without a strong network.

INSEAD Chaired Professor of Organisational Behaviour Herminia Ibarra has spent the better part of the last 15 years researching issues of networking (amongst many other things!) and the impacts on careers and identities, particularly those of women. Fully understanding both men and women's networking mechanisms, the corporate landscape as it is, and the relevance of such networks for career success and organizational impact, is critical for improving the numbers and experience of women in the executive suite.

The old adage of 'it's not what you know, but who you know' rings true, and nowhere more so than in the corridors of corporate career building. But for men and women, building a 'who you know' network happens in different ways. Recognising and indeed celebrating this, Ibarra has developed the INSEAD Women Leading Change executive development programme, building on women's needs and actual ways of operating in today's business environment.

"More often than not, mixed work/play networks do not work for women. Male executives may go off for a round of golf over the weekend, forging bonds this way… how often would a female executive be included in this kind of 'old-boy' network event? Where then will she develop her socio-professional network?" asks Ibarra. "Women therefore need to develop two distinct networks-one within the company-mostly with male peers-to gain relevant 'instrumental' information on company technical knowledge, workings, culture and people; and a second-with a mix of men and women-to meet "psychosocial needs," such as sharing experiences, getting mentoring, and building identity."

Men will usually have these two needs, instrumental and psychosocial, met within the same corporate network group of colleagues/friends. While a woman may build a satisfactory professional relationship with a male mentor, it will not be enough to fill her psychosocial needs and a wider mixed-gender network becomes essential to both a woman's career and individual growth.

And that is what INSEAD's Women Leading Change programme is all about: building and nurturing executive women's networks to encourage both individual and career growth.

In a world where women are taking on more of the corporate challenge, as well as reataining the major part of the parenting and family challenge, it is important that networking be 'scheduled' as a part of leadership development. This gives the time and space to build and benefit from a peer, same-gender network that Ibarra's extensive research has shown is a vital part of women's professional growth. Time and space to benefit from other's experience, leadership styles and methods, ways of overcoming challenges, ways to succeed, to remain true to herself, her family and her professional goals.

Of course nobody is suggesting that women's networks are the answer to equality for women in the executive suite, but research has shown that at least part of the answer does lie in helping women build networks from which they can learn both substance and style. INSEAD's Women Leading Change is that 'part'.


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