Adi Gaskell, www.forbes.com — February 18, 2020
Research published last year highlighted the challenges women face when it comes to building their network. The research reveals that men who were in the right networks were around 1.5 times as likely to progress into leadership roles after graduating than men who were in the wrong networks.
For women however, there was no such premium, even if they were in the “right” network. Where networking did seem to be beneficial however is if they were in a social network that was primarily made up of women, in which case they were 2.5 times more likely to graduate to a leadership role after leaving school.
So one might imagine that women-only networking groups would be beneficial, but new research from the University of Edinburgh suggests things might not be so straightforward. Indeed, it argues that these groups may do more harm than good, especially in terms of supporting female entrepreneurs.
Some of these barriers were explored in recent research from Columbia University. The study analyzes the networks of a few thousand entrepreneurs, and comes to the rather depressing finding that decision makers appear to prefer male contacts when they’re making a third-party referral, especially in sectors that are dominated by men. This bias vanishes in fields that are either more gender neutral or more commonly associated with women, but that is scant consolation.
The research challenges the notion that if women aren’t getting value from networking, it’s because they aren’t doing it properly or are in bad networks. Instead, it suggests that there are fundamental biases at play that limit the potential of networking for female entrepreneurs.
“We know that gender inequities happen all the time — men and women in the same job experience differences in outcomes,” the researchers say. “So why would we think that putting women in the same networks as men would lead to equal outcomes?”
The Edinburgh-led research finds that women-only networking groups are largely unable to overcome this kind of hurdle. The question is, does this really matter or do women-only networks provide other benefits to members?
“We cannot erase gender, ethnic or sexuality biases on our own, and so not having a dialog about these things and ignoring them really doesn’t help,” Sheila Flavell, COO of IT services company FDM, who sponsor the FDM Everywoman in Tech Awards, told me recently. “It’s not about making people feel bad, it’s about celebrating diversity and raising awareness of the unconscious biases that do exist.”
Data from the Boston Consulting Group has previously shown that startups run by women tend to perform better than average, and the scale of the potential was underlined by a follow up study from the group that explored what would happen to the economy if entrepreneurship rates among women were comparable with those among men.
The report suggests that if rates were broadly equal, then global GDP would grow by up to 6%, which would boost the global economy by an incredible $5 trillion.
The research from the University of Edinburgh took place in Northern Ireland, which is an area with lower female entrepreneurship rates than the rest of the U.K. It’s a discrepancy that has been tackled head on by Invest NI, a regional development agency in the country.
The promotion and support of female entrepreneurship has typically been done via women-only networks that aim to provide entrepreneurs with role models, support and access to networks. The researchers spoke with entrepreneurs from these networks, together with those from mixed networks, and indeed those who are members of both types of network.
The conversations revealed that the aim of providing valuable networking opportunities was not met by a reality that saw these groups marginalized and stuck in a niche of female entrepreneurs rather than providing members with access to the kind of networks that are so vital to startup growth.
“Entrepreneurship policies targeted at women are contributing little or nothing to their equality, well-being or independence,” the researchers say. “Entrepreneurship is shaped for men, and successful entrepreneurs are male. Women are only deemed successful if they launch businesses in the ‘right’ (male-dominated) industries and match male-owned businesses for growth. Thus, women-only networks perpetuate the masculinity of entrepreneurship, by reinforcing women as being in the margins.”
The research highlights the various challenges faced by female entrepreneurs, many of which I covered in a recent article. This is coupled by a lack of awareness of the sectors female entrepreneurs tend to focus on, which results in poor construction of the right networks to help them grow their businesses.
As such, the research found that the networks available to the entrepreneurs tend to be limited geographically, and provide more in the way of social support than any form of business development assistance.
This is a shame, as the interviews highlighted a real sense among female entrepreneurs of having to battle against a tide that sees entrepreneurship as a largely male domain.
“Strategies and policies focus on addressing failings or limitations unique to women, rather than on systemic, industry or institutional issues, perceiving a deficiency of perceived female underperformance,” the researchers say. “By treating women differently to men, treating them as a problem that needs to be fixed, and by creating women-only targeted initiatives, women continue to be marginalised. Many business structures are shaped for men, with women restricted in their entrepreneurial ambitions in the lower echelons of the retails and service sector, often referred to as ‘pink ghettos’.”
This is perhaps exacerbated by network managers who genuinely see themselves as part of the solution. Whereas they saw themselves as helping the entrepreneurs, the feeling was not matched by the entrepreneurs themselves, who often felt that the networks merely confirmed their status as second class citizens in the entrepreneurial world.
The failings of these support networks was also highlighted by the Columbia research, which suggested that female entrepreneurs would be better served going directly to the contacts they wished to meet rather than relying on intermediaries.
With the stakes quite so high should society prove better able to support female entrepreneurs, hopefully the uncovering of these findings will enable the support networks that do exist to move beyond providing lip service and actually help female entrepreneurs overcome the inequities society continues to place upon them.
“All parties need to identify, address and eliminate the various means by which cultural bias is perpetuated, restructuring the ways social institutions are conceived,” the researchers conclude. “If women’s entrepreneurship continues to be seen as a gendered niche, aspirations for its impact will never be met.”