Breaking down barriers: The importance of women’s networks

Deborah Gilshan, founder of The 100% Club, explains why female-only networks are key to achieving the elusive goal of gender equality.

headshot Deborah Gilshan

This article is part of a week of coverage by Responsible Investor to mark International Women’s Day 2023. 

“Networks… empower people – and the least empowered economically are women” Professor Julia Hobsbawm, Women need to network, Financial Times, 1 December 2014

international womens day 2023In September 2020, I read an article by Linda Scott, a professor at Said Business School and founder of the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment.

It stated that, according to the International Trade Centre, “99 percent of trade and 99 percent of procurement contracts, whether from governments or from companies, are controlled by men”.

I was stunned. By the end of the article, I was even more stunned. There were so many examples of how women were excluded financially, economically and socially. This exclusion seemed to be everywhere and had persisted through history.

However, what also stunned me was how this exclusion manifests through lack of access to networks for women.

We do not realise quite how systemic this lack of access is for women and the systemic impact that this lack of access has on women. It’s a barrier I have read about again and again.

For example, the 2019 Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship identified lack of access to networks as a key barrier that female entrepreneurs face. In particular, “traditional networking methods are … a challenge” and “a lack of professional networks was perceived as a particularly important barrier by newer female entrepreneurs”.

This dearth of opportunity sustains inequalities against 51 percent of the population. It is the main reason why I founded a networking alliance dedicated to gender equality in 2011 called The 100% Club.

One of the original aims was to connect female governance professionals working as company secretaries with those working within investment institutions.

While these two cohorts are often on opposite sides of the table during engagement meetings, I wanted to create a forum where they could socialise and build relationships outside of their day jobs – which could help in those challenging conversations they were having in their day jobs.

Since then, it has flourished into a multi-sector alliance with around 800 members, including institutional investors, non-executive directors, executive and board search representatives, governance and investment consultants, proxy research advisors, industry representative bodies, regulators, lawyers and entrepreneurs.

Government support

Encouragingly, access to networks is increasingly being recognised as an important way to empower women and address inequalities.

The FTSE Women Leaders Review, a UK government-backed initiative to improve female representation in UK companies, identified an eight-point plan for organisations to improve gender diversity. One was the creation of diversity networks: “Set up women’s network as a central place for women to connect, form extended networks and support each other.”

Back to Professor Scott’s article. It had left me in no doubt of the challenges ahead in achieving gender equality and why we needed many solutions to address these barriers.

These included, but were not limited to: continuing to increase female representation at the highest levels, on boards and on executive committees; visibility of female role models, creating different perceptions of what leadership looks like; and giving women access to networks for opportunities and to learn from inspiring role models.

As I wrote in response to Professor Scott’s article: “When we look up, we need to see and hear women participating at the highest levels of business and across the economy. Only then will the opportunity of women’s economic empowerment be fully realised.”

Unfortunately, progress on gender equality still often feels glacial. We take wins where we can find them, such as the fact that UK FTSE 350 companies now have 40 percent female directors among the total number of directorships.

Less positively, there are only 21 female CEOs and 55 female chairs in the same index of companies, according to the 2023 FTSE Women Leaders Review.

Combatting criticism

At the same time as Professor Scott’s article, I was awaiting the outcome of research into The 100% Club.

I had been running the network for nearly nine years and was keen to demonstrate its impact, given its increasing longevity and growth in membership globally. It had always been my aim that the network would provide a collective forum for women to meet, collaborate and empower each other.

From the outset, I wanted to demonstrate the importance of networking for career advancement and personal development. The events are an eclectic mix of social gatherings and seminars with inspirational role models. Members value the opportunity for education, access to role models, networking, mentoring and support that membership provides.

However, I always knew that I needed to go beyond organising events to combat the criticism about gender-based networks.

There is intrinsic value in creating space for women but it is sometimes overshadowed by criticism that targets initiatives specifically aimed at empowering women. Often, the value of a gender-based network is seen in isolation. But this misses the point. We need to deconstruct how women have been excluded and create alternative spaces for them to build social capital.

Gender-based networks should be a key part of a more holistic strategy in this regard. The benefits are multiple for individuals, and this impact multiplies when all members benefit. Such networks contribute to the systems change necessary to address systemic barriers that exist everywhere.

Key benefits

Qualitative research analysing the impact of The 100% Club supports this. Undertaken by a Cambridge University undergraduate, Faith Borland, the research involved interviews with a small cohort of members.

Five key benefits of the network were identified: a supportive environment, confidence building, friendship, development and learning and collaboration.

The research, which was launched at an event hosted by KPMG in November, was featured in the FTSE Women Leaders Review 2023 report as an example of the benefits of such a network.

The World Economic Forum estimates that it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. The 100% Club is my contribution to closing that gap in a shorter timeframe. We do not have any more time to lose.

Deborah Gilshan is the founder of The 100% Club, a multi-sector networking alliance and advisory business on investment stewardship and ESG. This month, she was recognised by We Are The City as one of the UK’s top 50 trailblazers for her work on gender equity.