This blog orignally appeared in the Institute for Leadership & Management Edge magazine.

“What the [Women in Leadership] group were passionate about was that women do not change themselves per se, but change how they present themselves.”

There are a wealth of women’s networks for women across all levels and sectors. A lot of women find these networks extremely valuable – a way to find other women in the same position as them and to gain support, inspiration and business connections. As a woman who has worked in engineering – a male-dominated environment – I have seen how women’s networks can be hugely encouraging.

But are they enough to solve the huge gender gap for women in leadership positions? Despite being in the majority in graduates from university (56.5% female), currently women account for only 22.8% of Board positions in the FTSE100 and of this, only 8.4% are executive directorships, and in UK Higher Education, 21% of professors and only 17% of Vice Chancellors are women.

Emma Watson in her famous HeforShe speech at the UN – “if we do nothing it will take 75 years, or for me to be nearly a hundred before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work”. Pay inequality is strongly influenced by the fact that there are a much smaller proportion of women in the senior positions that attract higher pay.

Are networks enough?

We have seen some progress over the past few years: some networks are successfully campaigning on issues that are making a difference – such as the 30% Club’s targets for women on boards, and some are carrying out valuable research that is informing the debate, such as Opportunity Now’s 28-40 survey insights. However, one of the main offerings of many women’s networks is often about ‘building your network’ and ‘networking skills’, and this – according to NCUB’s Women in Leadership Group – is not enough. In fact Opportunity Now’s research agrees:

  • Diversity initiatives and resources, mentoring programmes, women’s networks, and leadership programmes targeted at high potential women are all usually available in large organisations today. These efforts are mainly designed to build women’s confidence, although they have had limited success in terms of improving gender balance at all levels.
  • Asked whether women find it hard to network with the most senior staff, women were five times more likely than men to agree.
  • Networking skills have long been cited as crucial in getting a job and progressing in business, particularly for those moving into senior leadership positions. However, drawing on their wealth of experience, NCUB’s Women in Leadership group thinks that this is misleading – especially for women – and as a consequence women are missing out.

NCUB’s Women in Leadership Group – chaired by Rona Fairhead, NCUB fellow and the new Chairman of the BBC Trust, includes senior women from ten different business sectors and female Vice Chancellors from across the UK. The group discussed what ‘networking’ skills really mean for women and what is really needed to progress into leadership positions.

Good girl syndrome

“Pay inequality is strongly influenced by the fact that there are a much smaller proportion of women in the senior positions that attract higher pay.”

The problem stems from what Professor Dame Julia King, Vice Chancellor of Aston University, describes as good girl syndrome – young women come out of the education system thinking that competence i.e. achieving the A* answer, is enough, but in the workplace confidence is just as important:  “Encouraging and rewarding only ‘good girl’ behaviour embeds patterns of expectation and behaviour which must be unlearnt for a successful career.”

Some would argue that this means women need to change. However what the group were passionate about was that women do not change themselves per se, but change how they present themselves. The important skill the group identified is not ‘networking’ but understanding how to be more visible i.e. realising the importance of being known and putting yourself in positions where you challenge yourself. Networking is not about boasting, but understanding that it is just as important to showcase your good work & make sure the right people are seeing it as it is to deliver ‘perfect’ results. And it is not about being political, but women do need to be more savvy about who you tell about your ambitions. In the Athena ASSET survey, men were more likely to record that they were ‘tapped on the shoulder’ and advised to apply for a promotion and this was because they had been more visible.

This is not the only answer of course – there are still huge structural and cultural changes to the workplace needed and action by both men and women. But we need to tell more women about what successful networking really means and help them develop these skills – and at an earlier stage before it’s already starting to prevent progression. The group is exploring how universities and businesses can work together to develop these skills and attitudes in women that will empower them to be leaders.

Olivia Jones is project manager for Talent, Enterprise & Development at NCUB.

The NCUB Women in Leadership Group, chaired by BBC Trust Chairman Rona Fairhead, includes senior women from ten different business sectors and female Vice Chancellors from across the UK. The group aims to develop bold, practical actions to increase the number of women in leadership positions in both business and academia, using the strength of university-business collaboration.

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