Most corporations now have some type of diversity program that includes women. Often this means establishing a women’s network for the purposes of helping women advance their careers. These groups are often formed with the intention of promoting women, but are they promoting women or just placating them?

My experience has been the later. Women’s networks have little or no funding and are paid lip service by the companies who say they have the mission of helping create gender equality in the workplace.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, author Avivah Wittenberg Cox, addresses this issue. She comments on the formation of these networks,

“But after a few years, the ladies grow embittered, pointing out how little progress has been made in the actual balance of leadership. The gentlemen reaffirm that, despite ‘all that they have done for women’, the ladies still aren’t able to make it.”

She further states,

“This sidesteps the real issue: that the men currently in power may not actually have the skills and knowledge to effectively manage across genders (not to mention across nationalities, the other global elephant in the room). Women’s networks and activities end up as politically savvy deflectors for blame.”

“These internal networks “inadvertently (or manipulatively, depending on the company) marginalize women into a separate group from the one currently in power. And keep them there.”

She has three suggestions for change:

  1. Use existing women’s networks to lobby for real change. Get each woman in the network to sign a petition requesting that the Executive Team accept accountability for gender balance – with targets, KPIs and a budget, like any other business initiative.
  2. Redefine women’s networks as ‘balance networks’ that include both men and women. Their goal becomes skill- and bridge-building around gender understanding rather than segregation.
  3. Get men to lead the charge, as some are starting to sound ready. Identify male leaders brave enough to confront other men with the need for balance – and perceptive enough to understand the skills necessary to do so.

Do you currently have a women’s network in your company?

Does it help promote women?

How can you impact real change in your organization?