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21 February 2013

Do We Need Women-Only Networking Events?

There comes a time in every girl's life when she realises she is going to have to face the inevitable.

The inevitable being an evening stood in a poorly lit room full of strangers all trying to pluck conversation from thin air, while wearing a name tag on their right boob and trying desperately to project confidence and professionalism while attempting to eat chunks of cold chicken off an over-sized toothpick without looking like a barbarian. 

That's right, ladies. You are going to have to network. (Like in person. No, Facebook doesn't count.)

 

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Networking can be incredibly beneficial, but it's choosing the right networking events to attend that that can be difficult. The point of networking is to find people that you can help and that can help you, therefore it's a waste of time if you're surrounded by people who are of no use to you, and you of no use to them. 

However, even when you do find an industry networking event that is full of potentially useful connections, many events are what we call Sausage Parties: events filled with men with pointy shoes and agressive networking techniques they read about on some Silicon Valley dweller's blog. If you work in tech or any other male-dominated industry, this can get annoying. 

The question of "Where are all the women?" at these event is exactly why women-only networking events have become so popular. 

I used to go to an event for women in tech and digital media called Silicon Stilettos, and I always had an amazing time. Men could come if they were the plus-one of a woman, and we always had a great mix of people who were all excited to make new connections. 

This is the type of atmosphere I expected when I attended an event for female entrepreneurs hosted by a well-known technology company a few weeks ago. However, when I arrived to a room full of women involved in private conversations, all stood in circles with backs turned to newcomers, I was surprised and disappointed. 

The main focus of the evening was a "fireside chat" with the CEO of a successful ecommerce fashion site, followed by a panel discussion with various female entrepreneurs who are all regular attendees of these events and conferences, to talk about said events and conferences.

In short, I learned the following:

  • "You can still be a CEO and wear a killer pair of heels. You don't have to be in a pin-stripe suit to take over the world."
  • "At home things are very different than they are at work. My close friends are all farmers' wives or housewives. And I dress very different when I'm off-duty, it's all Juicy Couture tracksuits and Uggs for me!"
  • "I don't feel guilty for having a nanny and someone to clean my house, even when I'm home, and neither should you!"
  • "I spent a thousand pounds on shoes and handbags last night online!"
  • "You can have it all, just not all at once."
  • "Men are four times as likely to ask for a raise than women, so there's your 'pay gap'."
  • "Never give up."
  • "I have children!!!!!!!"

I also learned that  women love being inspired, and that speaking to other women about being women is inspiring. I mean, did you know you could wear heels and be a CEO at the same time? I sure didn't, but now I do.

 

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Listening to a wildly successful CEO trying to convince a room full of entrepreneurs that her life isn't that glamorous and self-deprecatingly insisting that she  "looks very different" at home and barely remembers to wash her tracksuits and is friends with the wives of farmers was mind blowing. 

Without even realising how ridiculous it was, she was trying to inspire other women to be confident and to stop feeling guilty for working a lot while acting guilty and embarrassed for being successful. Brilliant.

From the panel wistfully brushing over the pay gap, to the hallow "empowerment" that echoed through the entire conversation, I left the event quickly under a cloud of frustration and feeling as though women-only networking events were actually rubbish.

Thankfully, the most recent Women in Journalism event restored my faith in female networking. 

This WiJ panel conversation was frank, to the point, and bullshit free. The fact that we were women was very much part of the discussion, but it wasn't about shoes or nannies or inspiration - it was about misogynist bullshit and what we can do about it. It was about the power and the importance of female voices online. Basically, IT DID WHAT IT SAID ON THE TIN.

The women who were sat near me were all up for conversation and introduction, and afterwards (despite the bar being wine only, hrumph) women eagerly spoke to each other and swapped business cards as freely as their opinions on the panel.

 I understand that there are many women who don't see the benefit in women-only networking events, nor do they understand why we need them. 

Quite simply, women-only (or at least female focused) networking events need to exist because it gives women the opportunity to meet and be around more women in their industry than they would at a standard industry event.  It's refreshing to be in a room full of other women who do what you do. If you're not interested in that, don't worry about it and don't attend. Simple. 

I appreciate that some women want to go to events where they can talk about balancing work and children. Some want to talk about feminism. Some want to talk about being a feminist and balancing work and children. But, the big difference is to label these networking events as such. 

An event for entrepreneurial women run by a tech company should not have been so focused on motherhood and entrepreneurship or have been so laden with surface level conversations about running a business. (How is "never give up" actual advice?!) If your organisation has the word ENTREPRENEUR in it, treat your attendants like they're actual entrepreneurs, not as it's a new trend you're trying to sell them on. 

For more information on Women in Journalism, check out their website womeninjournalism.co.uk.

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