Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It’s complicated…

A friend on LinkedIn sent me the link to this thread about women's conferences being boring http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121120021154-13583-why-i-ll-never-attend-another-women-s-conference. The comments are a real eye opener too. But that’s because the issue is complicated. There are pros and cons to women-only and women-mostly networks.

Sexism is still rife in this world. I’m astonished that inequalities in pay still exist. It saddens me to see all-male line-ups at conferences and all-male boards for any kind of company and dominance of men of a certain background in politics. I hate to see gender stereotyping when it comes to technology (although, admittedly, much of that is culturally specific to The West). Women’s voices need to be heard. There needs to be ways that women can get involved in society, in business, in how things get done. Our voices are just as valid as anyone else’s. In developing nations, it is even more important where violence to women is more commonplace. It is because of these issues that women-only and women-mostly networks exist.

As many of you will already know, I am a strong supporter of women in business. I like to see women speak and hear them on panels. I want to see that women are doing well at senior level. We know that mixed gender teams and boards means more profit and happier staff. You can look up the research. It’s all there and it’s not rocket science. It’s better to have a mixed gender team of average competence than a single-sex team of high competence.

I have also been a strong supporter of women’s networks in my career. I cut my networking teeth a long time ago at Digital Eve in London. It was a great place to learn about networking in what felt like a safe and non-competitive environment to do so. Mixed networks, or should I say, predominantly-male networks were just so unappealing with the sea of grey suits, the posturing, the competitiveness and the unwelcoming nature of them. And not long after that, I was a founder member of the Women in Mobile Data Association. Again to show that women had a voice in the male, mobile industry. I have met some amazing women in both those networks, and others I have participated in. No question. But there are limits. I soon realised that you can’t just do business with women. In fact, if you had any business development to do, you actually had to go and play with the big boys and hold your own. So I did. But I couldn’t have done that without testing the waters first in women’s networks.

And what about today? There’s a very high-level, high profile women’s networking event happening in Brussels right now organised by the GSMA. The aim of the event is to incorporate more mentoring and structures in place for women to better succeed in corporate life. Not a bad thing to be supporting at all and it complements their mWomen initiative for developing countries too. Women in Wireless is growing and the London chapter has held some interesting events and is attracting a steady stream of intelligent, capable, enthusiastic women – entrepreneurs to life-long corporate employees and everything in between. There are even a few men who come along (and they’re very welcome).

But. And yes, there’s a but. I know what Nancy means in her flippant comments about women-only events. They do tend to focus on ‘how I made it in a man’s world’ and other such-like women’s issues. And it’s easily done as there are still issues to address. The trouble is, we don’t want to be silo’d and be included on token women-only panels at an otherwise all-male event. Would you have the Chinese-only panel or Turkish-only panel at an event? No, you wouldn’t. Well, I wouldn’t anyway. We want to participate fully. We want to be included. We want to see other women included. We want to see some diversity dagnamit.

So, Nancy. I think your comments were flippant and not at all well-thought through. But I hear you. I don’t want to see token female panels. I don’t want to be limited to just talking about women’s issues or women’s careers in male dominated industries. I just want it to be normal for women to be included and seen in these things as a matter of course. And if having women’s networks and women-only events means that women can learn their craft better so they can better succeed in mixed gender public platforms, then let them continue. And if it means we get better representation at board level, even better. Because that will lead to growth and success. And that’s what businesses are after isn’t it?