Women's networks alone can't solve companies' gender diversity problems, we need male leaders to get involved

Sandra Ondraschek-Norris
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Employees of EnBW, an EDF subsidiary in
Minority groups cannot change the status quo without the support of the dominant majority (Source: Getty)

When a pink envelope with the words “dress for success” arrives on your desk, do you think: a) “hurrah, a party”, b) “bit cringe-worthy” or c) “where's the blue envelope for my male colleague?”

This scenario greeted a junior lawyer recently, upon receiving this exact invitation to attend her company's female lawyers’ network event.

Men-only clubs have traditionally been seen as a refuge for a man to “be among his own kind”. But do women's networks offer the same refuge for women? These groups can provide an excellent source of support, career advice and networking opportunities for women.

But a woman's network should not be considered a company’s silver bullet for propelling large numbers of women up the corporate ladder.

Expecting women's networks to solve diversity and inclusion is the equivalent of the antelopes getting together and deciding they won't be eaten by the lions.

History shows us that minority groups cannot change the status quo without the support of the dominant majority. The Civil Rights Movement in America is a good example of how a campaign became mainstream when it won the support of powerful “allies” from the white community.

To date men have been left out of this conversation as women have been told to “fix” inequality in the workplace themselves.

Women get told that to achieve senior leadership they must become more confident (but not abrasive); they must have a strong (not girly) handshake; they should not smile too much (or too little); and they need to carry themselves with authority (but not in an aggressive way).

But women are still less likely to be given the “hot jobs” key to getting ahead at global companies, despite having more development training than men. Instead, they’re more likely to have projects with a smaller budget, smaller teams and less visibility to senior leadership.

What actually needs to be “fixed” is an organisation's culture and systemic biases. We know, for instance, that many women are not asked career-changing questions. There's a huge difference between "do you want this job?" and "you don't really want that job, do you?" Or, even worse, the question isn't even asked.

Male leaders need to start challenging these assumptions in order to make change. Real equality in the workplace will only come about when diversity is something that male leaders are actively involved in.

They need to know that even though it may not be their fault that inequality exists, it is their responsibility as leaders to work for change and to call out protocols that may be holding women back.

A male champion, while appreciating the benefit of a women's network, will know that only a multi-pronged approach on this issue will create true momentum in the jungle that is the corporate workplace.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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