I have been surprised by some of the challenges I have encountered in starting a women’s network, from both genders. A lot of these challenges I believe are due to bad experiences, negative connotations and huge misconceptions about what a women’s network is about.
A lot of people it seems have a perception that a women’s network divides rather than unites people, or some worry that it is a bunch of women sat round talking about baking or knitting [rolls eyes]. I can neither bake or knit and neither do I really have any interest in it, so that is certainly not my reasons for starting a women’s network and I absolutely do not want to divide people.
I believe a women’s network is a powerful tool for creating more awareness of some of the inequality that still exists today but also a positive arena to enable and empower women. Some of the statistics like ‘women will only apply for a job if 80% of their skills meet the job description whereas men apply if only 40% of their skills meet the job description’, and ‘70% of women do not put themselves forward for things, worrying about how they will be perceived’, are alarming. These things are largely about confidence and this is where giving women access to mentors and role models (from both genders) can really help.
As we now talk more about the benefits of diversity and inclusion, which I fully support, I was asked the question many times about why it should be a women’s network and not just a ‘network’. The reason I decided to maintain this title was because I think a women’s network can do both. I believe it can be fully inclusive but still be about supporting women. After all, in order to get more women into senior management positions or on to the management boards, we need the confidence to put ourselves forward but we also need to challenge and change perceptions, stereotypes and bias. We need to understand the value that we bring and demonstrate that value, in the right way, without compromising who we are as individuals.
To me, part of a women’s network is about helping people find balance and inspiration. At times, finding balance is a challenge for everyone and the most inspiring people I have come across have balanced a fulfilling career that challenges them but also have enough time to spend with family. This is just what inspires me though, because that’s what I want in my life. For you, it might look completely different.
Yes it’s largely about women but I recognise that we are a massively diverse group of people. We are from different backgrounds, have different opinions and different things to offer but a women’s network allows you to network with women from all across those different backgrounds and through that network you can develop relationships with people you might not ordinarily meet in your day to day life. You might find someone you identify with and you are likely to find someone who inspires you or understands your situation. A women’s network gives you access to people who have more than likely overcome at least some of the same challenges you have and may have a different perspective, or open your mind to think differently.
It is also about building confidence. Often we are our own biggest critics and actually no one is asking us to answer work calls while we are supposed to be reading the bedtime story (And if they do they are probably an *** anyway), we do that to ourselves. No one is asking us to travel all over the world on our first day back from maternity leave (my personal experience). This is just our insecurity telling us that we need to prove ourselves more than others, putting ourselves under massive unnecessary pressure. We need the confidence to set boundaries. We need to feel that we can ask for support when we need it, without shame or judgement, and give ourselves a break. A women’s network is a safe place to have these discussions whereas otherwise you might not feel able to.
When I came back to work after maternity leave, my daughter was 8 months and still not sleeping. I was exhausted, sleep deprived and overwhelmed with guilt. Instead of easing myself back in to work, I went back in full pelt. I was so worried about what taking 8 months out had done to my career.
I wish another mum had said to me, give yourself time. 6 months later I was absolutely fine. My daughter was sleeping, I found my rhythm and I now feel more powerful, more efficient (because you have to be when you are balancing both career and family), and decisive than ever. Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days and mum guilt is a daily struggle but I am doing ok! I wish I’d had access at the time to someone who had been in my situation and could tell me to give myself a break as it will get easier soon. Even more than easier, you will feel stronger than you did before.
Equally, it should be your decision. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be assumed that as i was a new mum, that I couldn’t do my job, do the travel, or manage that project etc. I just wish I’d had the confidence to push back from time to time. I still want to be offered the opportunities and we do have to be careful as this is where managers can fall into the trap of unconscious bias, where they are offering opportunities to those without kids because they do not want to add too much pressure to those who do.
We need to create awareness about unconscious bias. If you are the best candidate for that trip/project/etc.. then you should be offered it and it is up to you to decide if you can manage it.
It is also a myth that women’s networks are asking for preferential treatment for women. We absolutely do not want preferential treatment. No one wants to feel that they were given an opportunity because they fit a certain mould. Targets have unfortunately created a feeling amongst men and women that women will be promoted unfairly. Neither gender wants this. It would be nice to believe that if we could fix some of the things holding women back, and confront some of the bias head on, that women will have exactly the same opportunities that men do. The women’s network aims to support women to succeed on their own merit.
I believe that in this modern day of technology and also consequences of working across different time zones, we should be able to pick up the kids from school and then switch on the laptop again when they are in bed if we choose to if this works better for us. This is what flexible working is about. We still live in an archaic society of 9-5 and need to challenge this mentality.
7 in 10 men want to work more flexibly and one of the best way to get more out of women is to share the home life more equally.. 50/50. It (usually) takes two people to make a baby, it should take 2 people to raise a baby.
Bias exists towards men as much as it does towards women. Men are still largely expected to work the hours, bring home the money and provide for their family. Come on…. it’s 2019. If men and women split the workload equally in the workplace and in the home then maybe the workplace would better represent the diverse nature of the world we live in. Some of the healthiest and happiest relationships I know are where parents act as a team, supporting each other’s dreams and ambitions equally, whatever they might be.
This is why the women’s network needs to be fully inclusive but still needs to be a women’s network. There should also be a men’s network challenging some of the stereotypes and unconscious bias that exist about men and also a network challenging unconscious bias about disabled people, LGBT, ethnic minorities and everything else that bias and stereotypes exist for. The women’s network should just be one of many networks addressing equality.