In 2015, I attended a session for senior women professionals conducted by Prof. Stacy Blake-Beard at the Simmons School of Management in Boston. I watched in amazement as Prof. Blake-Beard conducted her routine classroom exercise, asking participants to solve a set of 15 seemingly simple, general knowledge questions. The women struggled with what had looked like a rather easy task. When the professor asked them how this made them feel, the answers ranged from “stupid" and “inadequate" to “frustrated" and “intimidated". She then asked her students to form groups of five and work on the same exercise—needless to say, success came early this time.
This simple act of “collaborating" was meant to open their eyes to the importance of networking.
“Strategic networking is critical for advancement in a career. Taking the time to thoroughly and thoughtfully analyse your networks is the first step. Through this analysis, you women will be able to clearly see where you have ‘network gaps’," said Prof. Blake-Beard, adding, “Every time I work with groups of women to do this important analysis, I am struck by how energized they are. Knowing the strengths and opportunities in their networks...this is power."
The phenomenon of women shying away from the concept of “networking" has its roots in gender biases and expectations that disincentivize them from promoting themselves, seeking greater visibility and harbouring individual ambition; men are often conditioned into a diametrically opposite mindset.
Over the years, women, particularly working mothers, have also lost out on, or been “left out" of, business opportunities and conversations owing to the culture of after-hours networking dinners or late nights. Men have dictated this culture for years.
The most successful networks are those from school or university. While workplaces such as McKinsey, Unilever and Citibank have active and engaged groups, nothing beats the power of educational institution alumni networks. Karan Bhola, founding president of the Sonepat-based Ashoka University Alumni Association, says, “Alumni networks can help deliver a level playing field in the workplace, especially to address the deeply embedded gender and power imbalance."
The time spent together in school and university—and, perhaps, the phase of life—makes for stronger and more forgiving bonds. Women fall behind on this front too. In the 1990s, The Economist wrote that the boys-only Doon School network was the second most influential alumni network in the world after Harvard. Interestingly, whether it is the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) or St Stephen’s college—all mixed gendered spaces—the alumni networks are also popularly referred to as “old boys’ clubs". In contrast, Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women, a leading undergraduate institution, has barely got its alumni association off the ground—in 2014, more than 50 years after it was established.
But the absence of robust women’s networks is being noticed, and, in small measure, rectified. Errol D’Souza, director of IIM, Ahmedabad, has started a network of their women alumni. “Women alumni networks are potent when they go beyond providing mentors to making possible sponsors. We expect women to negotiate hard, be aware of the use and abuse of power, and be willing to take risks…," says D’Souza.
While institutions and driven individuals can try and change the situation, women have to take charge and create opportunities for themselves. Yet, though women’s alumni groups and clubs are mushrooming in different parts of the world, they are far from reaching the stage where they possess the same financial, social and cultural capital as “old boys’ clubs".
So far, a large part of the problem has been the low numbers of women in eminent institutions of management and technology. Till last year, for example, IIT enrolments saw, on average, 10% women—and IIMs are still struggling to cross the 35% mark, with a few recent exceptions.
Much of the focus currently, then, is on increasing the number of women in engineering, management institutes and corporate corridors. But this will solve the problem only partly. For a lasting and serious impact, the change must amplify and sustain, and this will be possible only with strong and supportive networks. Novelist Sarah Addison Allen writes in The Peach Keeper: “We’re connected, as women. It’s like a spider web. If one part of that web vibrates, if there’s trouble, we all know it, but most of the time we’re just too scared, or selfish, or insecure to help. But if we don’t help each other, who will?"
While every generation takes us one step further in the right direction, I hope the next generation of women can recognize and leverage the power of sisterhood and networks and take this to a new zenith. We need to create an intricately connected web of strong and successful women across the globe who will come together and help each other grow. Nothing, I believe, is more critical for sustaining the changes that we hope to see in a more equal, post-gender world. I hope the millennial girl is listening!
The Millennial Girl is a column based on an online survey conducted with over 100 urban, working millennial women to uncover their attitudes and opinions about the workplace.This is the last in the series.
Anuradha Das Mathur is founder and dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, and a Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016. With inputs from Mohini Gupta.