Developing Women Leaders in Technology, Part Four: Women’s Conferences and Networking

Over half of technical women leave the field 10 to 20 years into their careers, and only 25 percent of technical professionals are women. The numbers shrink moving up the career ladder, especially in Silicon Valley, where only 11 percent of tech executives are women. However, research demonstrates that gender-balanced companies have better employee and financial performance.

Recent articles have explored solutions to this problem, including training and leadership development programs as well as efforts to build more inclusive cultures. But what about educational opportunities outside the company, like conferences and networking groups? Many organizations are now offering events that are geared toward or even exclusive to women. For example, last week, Corporate Learning Hub hosted Tech Up for Women, which, according to managing director Dawn Pratt, aimed “to level the playing field by creating opportunities for women.” There are even women-only social clubs and co-working spaces, including The Riveter, which is focused on women technical entrepreneurs, and The Wing, which announced a $32 million Series B funding round today (led by co-ed competitor WeWork).

After all, as author and Tech Up for Women speaker and Molly Beck points out, “One of the best parts of attending conferences is knowing that every single other person in the room is also there because they want to connect.” When women have support to connect with each other, it can not only boost their professional development but also help build a community of technical women leaders.

No Boys Allowed? The Benefits of Single-Sex Education and Networking

While women-only education began as a way for women to access higher education when they were banned from most institutions, there are still many women’s colleges in existence today, and their leaders and alumnae point to research that’s found that single-sex education can still be beneficial.

Extending this philosophy after formal education, a 2015 study from Indiana University found that in workplaces where 85 percent or more of their employees were men, they display less healthy cortisol levels, implying that they experience more stress. A Daily Mail article about the research reported previous research has found “that working in male-dominated places can cause social isolation for women” and may be “linked with performance pressures, sexual harassment, and obstacles to professional mobility.” Arguably, at least until the workplace is more balanced, this research could support the use of women-only training events as well.

Inc. reports that women are reportedly twice as likely as men to say they feel left out of the networking process. Whitney Wolfe, founder and CEO of Bumble, which recently launched a “female-centric” networking app, is quoted as saying that women’s networking groups help women develop confidence and support and help women’s businesses become profitable and scalable. Inc. also reports that “the women’s events business now accounts for a healthy portion of the estimated $14 billion conference and trade show industry.”

Stacey Gordon, a financial and HR consultant and former president of the National Association of Women MBAs, wrote in Forbes that women’s networking groups “may be necessary for some women to feel a sufficient fit to confidently approach others and to assert themselves in conversations with strangers” and may be a good first step toward feeling comfortable at traditional networking events. Karen Bate, founder of Awesome Women Entrepreneurs, recently told OZY, “When women are in all-women networking groups, they’re on fire.”

Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy at PayScale, spoke at Tech Up for Women on improving the leadership pipeline for women in technology. She says, “With the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry and the ongoing issues women face in the industry, I’m glad to see events focused on examining solutions. I think it’s incredibly important, though, to ensure we’re not putting the burden solely on women. The only way to truly move the needle in tech is to ensure we’re looking at the full ecosystem that contributes to the problems … Including men in this conversation is also critical to making progress.” And, in fact, there were a few men at the conference, and two spoke on a panel abut financing tech startups.

Bringing Men Into the Girls-Only Clubhouse

Along those lines, Jennifer Openshaw, executive director of the Financial Women’s Association, told CNBC in 2015 that involving men in women’s networks may help more women obtain leadership positions. In fact, CNBC reported that some networks, such as PWN Global, had begun inviting men to join them. Similarly, Alexis Krivkovich, a McKinsey partner, pointed out to OZY, “If your network is mostly female, you have narrowed your access to senior leadership.”

Maura McAdam, director of entrepreneurship at Dublin City University, told the Irish Times earlier this year, “When it comes to increasing sales and achieving strategic goals, such as growth, or accessing new opportunities, then a mixed group is better as it more accurately mirrors the general business environment.” However, she agrees with Gordon that women’s groups can help members feel more confident and less isolated.

Tech companies should encourage female employees to use both approaches – women-only and mixed-gender educational events and networking. Doing so will help developing leaders gain access to senior executives and learn a blend of effective networking strategies. After all, if we truly believe that diversity benefits organizational culture and performance, then we need to encourage diversity in professional development and networking, as well.

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