Women’s networks: a tick-box exercise?

Ania Rontaler, partner and co-chair of its women’s network, The Number One Club (TNOC), delves into women’s networks and asks a question that may be long overdue – can they really be considered successful?

Ania Rontaler quote purple background

In a recent article for Evening Standard magazine, Emma Sexton, co-founder of Flock Global (an organisation which helps mainly female entrepreneurs grow their companies) said: “The reason [women’s] networks are taking off is because there’s a mindset of collaboration, not competition.”

Over the past ten years, women’s networks have become an established part of the corporate world. These networks have become a lot more than a place for women to discuss issues (moan); in my view, they now have the ability to empower change (if they have the right features).

Is it possible to say that they empower change, or that they are successful, when in the legal world there is still a great disparity when it comes to women in senior positions? In my own law firm and across the sector, the gender pay gap was higher than the national average, even though we have our vociferous and very established women’s network (The Number One Club (TNOC) (which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year). And globally we have various movements relating to gender equality such as #MeToo, #TimesUp and #PayMeToo.

Things are improving (slowly) and the dial is shifting (slowly). Successful women’s networks are part of the gender balance jigsaw, they empower change as part of other initiatives, they are an integral part. While they are not the answer, they are definitely part of the solution.

But only the successful networks can achieve. What does success look like for a women’s network?

A call for greater management support

In a recent survey conducted by TNOC as part of its 10-year celebrations, we found that 56% of respondents (clients and members of external women’s networks) felt that management buy-in was essential for a women’s network to be successful. Without the support of management, we are back in tick-box territory. As one respondent commented, “actions need to support words. It is not enough for individuals to publicly buy in to gender balance if they create an environment which limits the ability to achieve that balance.”

An invitation for men

I also sometimes wonder if women’s networks may in fact promote inequality. By creating networks that are for women only, could it not be argued that this promotes further segregation and alienates men? How can women bring about change when they are only speaking to other women? One respondent from our survey said: “I don't think it is always for women to issue the guidance we perceive as correct. I think networks need to invite men to discussions so that we can hear a different perspective. Sometimes the discussions at women's networks can feel like a conversation in an echo chamber.”

While TNOC would love more male committee members, all our events, internal and external, are very consciously open to men and women from across the firm, no echo chambers here (although you can always create less echo….). What is encouraging is that 80% of respondents have organisations with women’s networks that are open to both men and women, with 54% actually run by both women and men.

In my view, another essential for success is a clear objective. People need to know what a women’s network is there for and the network needs to be clear on this too. Networks need to take actions, they need to look to the now and the future. TNOC now has very clear objectives:

  • Looking After No 1 (internal events to support and develop our female talent)
  • Plus One (external events for men and women to network with female clients)
  • Collaborating As One (networking with other networks and clients, to share best practice and work together to push the dial on gender balance).

Throughout my own career, I have seen the perception of women in the corporate world change. I have gone from being the only woman at many meetings, to seeing the challenging of events with limited female involvement, greater awareness of unconscious bias, the growth of sponsorship, increased female promotion targets (at last!). I have become a partner at an international law firm, and TNOC played no small part in that – it raised my internal and external profile, it gave me access to senior stakeholders, it improved my networking skills, it increased my confidence. That is on an individual basis.

On a firmwide basis, I have seen TNOC become a brand and a strong one at that, creating constant dialogue about gender balance, collaborating with our clients, working with our senior management and supporting our gender balance committee. It has made for a healthier firm. I have seen first-hand the impact TNOC has had on supporting the journey the firm is on to achieve gender balance.

While I am encouraged by the changes I have witnessed, there is still a long way to go, but I believe that (successful) women’s networks have and will continue to play an essential role in bringing about the change that is required to achieve true gender balance, particularly as they become more sophisticated (and successful) and as we see more collaboration between networks.

TNOC would definitely be missed if it ceased to exist – not just by me, not just because it organises great events but because it is an integral part of the firm and its gender balance journey.

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