Why are women’s networking groups failing to produce more female leaders?

As the debate on how to create gender equity in leadership roles continues, it’s important to look at the role of networking in the inability to close the gap. Believe it or not, women simply do not have access to the same tools and resources offered in professional networks that male leaders do. This creates a disparity in the type of information women have access to.

I attend several networking functions each month in various professional settings for my company. And by far, functions that cater to men’s professional development tend to deliver more actionable content and shared resources, and to create more long-term value. On the other hand, networking functions geared toward women tend to focus on things like decor, dancing breakout sessions, exchanging business cards and raffles to encourage participation.

Why does this happen?

A few years ago, I hosted a public event to celebrate the launch of my book. The purpose was to teach women how to expand their business models by leveraging corporate investors. I invited decision makers from some of world’s leading retailers to discuss how to gain access to corporate contracts, lenders to discuss how to increase market share, and venture capitalists to discuss the importance of equity. I based it on the success of a VC event I attended in the past, where I had the opportunity to raise capital in the room to fund my startup. My event fell on deaf ears, as the women thought it was “boring” and were waiting for more entertainment than education.

After years of working on ways to provide the same value without diluting the message, I introduced a vetting process for those who want to attend my sessions to avoid the same mistakes. Many women attend leadership functions with different goals than men, and focus on how many people are in the room, exchanging business cards, who is on the stage (and it must be someone they admire) and decor, rather than building solid relationships with proven leaders. In the end, they segregate themselves from the influential leaders in the room by networking with other like-minded women.

Why is this important?

In order to create a competitive advantage and increase the market share for women, there must be a strategic focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of interactions.

According to an article by Athena Vongalis-Macrow, Ph.D., in Harvard Business Review, “A key reason why women lag behind in leadership is that they are less likely to have extensive networks to support and promote them as potential leaders…. Networking with more senior representatives has its benefits. Having access to a powerful spokesperson and building your connections is one way of working toward extending your network.”

This is an issue of diversity, if women are more likely to have networks that they feel comfortable to be connected with, rather than get value from. Throughout the past decade as a corporate keynote speaker, my view from the stage has allowed me to observe that some women attend an event because they have a level of familiarity with those in the room, as opposed to being hungry for applicable knowledge and new leadership skills. On the other hand, when I present to a group of men, there is more interaction and substantive discussion around my research and content.

While I agree that women require a different level of support in their efforts to take on leadership roles, there must be a balance in networking events between leadership development and entertainment. Women need to network with leaders in order to close the value gap.

“While I love having cocktails with the mid-level reporters from my organization and others in the city,” writes Meghan Casserly in Forbes, “the medicine I actually need in networking is having conversations with editors who are far my senior. Veterans who understand the big picture of the business and, most importantly, could someday be helpful in landing a plum position higher up the food chain.”

There is more to diversity and inclusion within a network than gender and race. It also factors in access to the same level of mentors, advisers, information, education and advocates. If womens’ level of access is not comparable to that of male leaders, how will women close the value gap, which continues to hinder equality in compensation and access to senior-level roles?

The simple solution is for male membership organizations to invite more women to join. In addition, women must participate in learning how to leverage actionable strategies from male leaders without focusing primarily on social interaction.

Written by Carol Sankar for CW Magazine.