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Jamie Hardesty

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Bdaily long read: Exploring the importance of women’s networking in the North East

Jamie Hardesty explores the value of women’s networking in the North East.

I’ve got to be honest, until recently, I’d never given much thought to women’s networking. Never did I realise that the subject can cause overwhelming divide and spring such differing viewpoints; especially between women themselves. So, you can imagine my surprise when I was exposed to a recent Twitter debate, which included quite vehement opposition to women’s networking. In fact, I found this quite strange. Allow me to elaborate.

I’m all for women’s networking. Let’s be honest - business remains male dominated. If women find it intimidating to network amongst men and therefore prefer to network amongst themselves, then fair enough! Ok you can argue that women shouldn’t feel that way but then who has the right to say how someone should or shouldn’t feel, or how someone should or shouldn’t act? I’m very much a believer of doing what you want to do, as opposed to doing what is expected. Anyway, I digress…

Conversely, some argue that if women actively choose to segregate themselves from men, then inequality and divide will only continue, ultimately perpetuating the problem. Theoretically, I do think that this viewpoint holds some weight. However, I find this extreme and impractical. When conducted properly, women’s networking can be a pragmatic response to the world we live in. A way of increasing female entrepreneurship through being proactive.

So, how much value can we place on women’s networking groups? I’ve been asking the region to have their say.

So how do people in the region feel?

Let’s start by considering the view of Claire Fenwick, marketing and business development manager at Mincoffs Solicitors.

Claire said: “I (on behalf of Mincoffs) have recently set up a ladies networking event called Fizz in the City. We have held two events now which take place bi-monthly on a Friday afternoon and involve lots of ladies, networking, prosecco, chocs and strawberries at Mr Lynch.

“Both events have attracted over 100 registrations and have been a great success. We have a hashtag #fizzfriday so there is lots of traction on Twitter. I wanted to set up a group that was informal, unintimidating and friendly in nature where ladies are not afraid to turn up alone.“

“For me, it’s pleasing to hear that the North East remains a fertile land for women’s networking, where new opportunities can be made possible - and perhaps more importantly, where women aren’t afraid to do such things.

Next up is Christine Gilbert, a director of Odyssey Systems, runs the Business Women’s Forum, a Teesside-based networking group that meets bi-monthly.

“While I enjoy mixed networking events, there’s something special about women only events. Things like golf days, business dinners and corporate entertaining at the football are often male-dominated, so it’s important for women in business to have opportunities where they can develop their networks.

“Mixed networking events tend to be quite formal, while our Business Forum, as an example, is a relaxed and comfortable environment, which I think encourages a more honest and productive exchange of views within a non-judgemental atmosphere.

“We also can discuss issues that are more relevant to a women-only group and, as women can sometimes have a different take on business, can generate some interesting discussions. Our group also has a diverse age demographic with members aged from 19 upwards, which is very positive. It allows older members of the group to offer mentorship and support, which encourages fresh thinking and dynamic ideas.“

I think Christine makes an excellent point - women only groups can help females achieve things they’re unable to achieve when networking with men.

Yet equally, there are networking groups designed for women which are also inclusive of men.

Nicola Jayne Little explains: “If women only networking encourages business women to attend and maximise the opportunities they offer, then great! I’ve listened to so many business women, especially those just starting up, explain that they find it completely nerve wracking to present themselves to a room full of people and talk about themselves and their businesses. When you’re in a room full of women, we’re not competing to be taken seriously; we’re all equal.

“Working with the FSB North East, #FSBWomenNE was launched simply to counteract this. With only 22% of their membership from females, we want to encourage new members and offer something additional to existing members. And men would never get turned away!“

Nickie Gott, owner of She’s Gott It and organiser of the North East Women Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, believes women’s networking groups are the perfect way to meet ‘likeminded’ people in a supportive setting, she said:“Women’s business networks are thriving and that is because many women in business find that other women in the same position are their most valuable form of support, inspiration and business connections. Working with and amongst likeminded people is a great way to gain insight, support and advice and most of all learn from your peers. It is also a good route to finding a business mentor.

“That said there is also a need to ensure you maximise and diversify you customer base so women in business need to ensure they access all types of networks too. Joining women networks could be the first step to widening your networks further across many platforms_.“_

Gudrun Lauret is one female in the region who would subscribe to the view that women’s networking is only a positive step in expanding female entrepreneurship, through the connections forged in participation.

Gudrun said: “In the FSB, we know that by encouraging more women to start up in and grow a business can have a huge impact on economic growth across the North East and increase more participation in the labour market.

“For us it’s about giving our 500 female members the choice. We host events that target all members but found those tended to be attended primarily by our male members. We have some amazing female-led businesses in our membership and we wanted to better support them. Launching FSB Women NE gives our female members the chance to connect with each other and do business in a non-threatening way.“

I was curious though, when considering the view that female groups are divisive, do male only groups exist? If so, would people react more negatively towards them than a female only group. Jayne Hart sheds some light on this.

She said: “Myself and a colleague were attending the wake of a work friend at a social club. The place was packed with no seats so we ventured into the bar area…..only to be told very firmly to leave as it was men only!!!! I was shocked to say the least, especially when I caught the satisfied looks on the men’s faces!

“I actively take part in both women only and mixed networking. I have to say my initial thoughts on women only networks were that they would be non-work focused, bitchy, full of ’hobby’ businesses and very difficult to integrate into as my experience of mums in the school yard left me with a bitter taste! Also the thought of having kids in tow made my toes curl. This was based on no fact but purely my own pre-judged ideas.

“A year later my view has changed. I find that the women only networks tend to be more supportive and nurturing. They provide practical ideas and shared experiences that help me in my business. My experience is that women tend to want to help and are willing to give their time more freely to benefit others. would say that I tend to sway towards women’s networking for support rather than to gain business. That’s not to say business does not get exchanged as it does.

“My experience of mixed networking is that it tends to be outnumbered by men (there are exceptions). At first it can be daunting with a sea of suits and it can be difficult to integrate into conversations. I need to be feeling confident. However, the more you go and your face gets known, it is easier. The conversation tends to be business focused. I tend to generate more business leads from this type of network and it is my preferred networking option. I certainly wouldn’t hold my hand up and say I needed help/support in these forums (like I would in the women’s networks).

“I do hear comments from men about all women networks and how its discriminating. My response tends to be don’t be so ridiculous as there are so many ’networks’ that men have that women would find difficult or impossible to join…rounds on the golf course….the drinks after work….the masons..and dare I say the social club bars!

“To summarise, My view is that there is room for both and the offerings can be different. The needs of your business, your personality style, your commitments and your aims all play a part in where you network.“

I feel Jayne makes a good point here, something I alluded to in the beginning of this piece - your needs are what you should consider. Therefore if you feel more comfortable attending a women’s only even then great, go for it. If you’re happy to attend mixed events then that’s equally as good. The fact that choice exists is only a positive in my eyes.

Judith Benison, group HR director at Great Annual Savings Group (GAS), believes that women-only business groups are a useful way of promoting female entrepreneurship and increasing the networking capabilities of local businesses.

She said: “I got to meet some inspirational women who went on to win awards and achieve great things in their respective businesses. Although at the time these groups didn’t generate an awful lot of direct business for the company I was working for at the time, it gave me access to a host of useful contacts.

“For example, I met some award-winning women who are heading up successful recruitment firms, which is potentially useful as GAS recently embarked on a mission to hire around 100 staff at its Seaham headquarters. Going forward I may be able to utilise their expertise to help me fill some of the vacancies that have arisen at GAS.“

Jo Carter, MD of a North East recruitment agency for the creative industries, established in 2002, echoes this. She said: “Women’s networking groups really helped me when I first started up my company and throughout my early years in business.

“Not just with the obvious things, like contacts and comradery, but I think amongst women you also often find a less competitive edge where we are just happy to help one another to achieve greatness. Less one-upmanship and more pulling together for the good of the woman in a man’s world.“

But is there a prevailing view that many people find it difficult to truly respect women’s only groups, is there a problem that they are thought upon to not being business focused enough?

Wayne Halton, director at Newcastle business-to-business PR consultancy MHW PR, established in 2000, said: “Business development is about what works for you, the individual or business. There are no hard and fast rules. I can see that for some the women-only network might appear a nurturing and supportive environment.

“Personally, I know few business women in the North East that respect or give time to women-only business networks. They tell me they’re weak, divisive and patronising. My view is it seems a bubble world – when business isn’t. Business is tough for everyone and is not gender specific. Get on with it – good people, whatever the gender, should aim to work together or fight the fight.“

Wayne makes a sound point, good people should aim to work together and barriers should therefore not exist. However, the fact remains that whilst business isn’t gender specific, we do live in conditions where quite often women can find themselves as a minority - and it can actually be more difficult for women to succeed than it can for men.

Do men and women work differently? Jeni Banks weighs in.

Jeni said: “I’ve been involved in the world of networking for over ten years now, both as a delegate and as an event organiser. I’ve attended many women’s only events across the UK and to date don’t have a bad experience story to tell.

“Men and women inherently network very differently, women tend to be more nurturers looking to offer support to each other before moving onto business. Some women, especially when first starting out in networking, can find the thought of walking into a room full of men in suits rather intimidating and opt for a women’s only event to get them started.

“Saying that, not all women and all men are the same these are very much generalisations and I’ve know it to be the other way around many times. I can see why men would feel frustrated at the idea of being excluded from attending events because of their sex. But the majority of women who organise these events often say that men are more than welcome to come along too, they just need to ask.

“I’ve often said that if men were to host ’men-only’ networking events there would be outrage, but at the same time I can see the huge benefits that come with women-only meetings. It really is a tough one to call.“

In summary, I can understand why people don’t like the notion of female networking. In an ideal world maybe females wouldn’t have to. However - we certainly don’t live in an ideal world! For many, such networking groups provide the support needed to succeed and conduct practical, tangible outputs.

The current business climate dictates the need for such groups. Perhaps as time goes on, and I’d like to think that this is true, the gender divide will narrow. If/When so - we might see a decline in female groups. However, in the meantime, I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with them and I don’t think they should be sneered at at all!

I really like the view of Charlotte Windebank, MD at Face to Face. Charlotte thinks that female networking groups can be a great starting point, a place to build confidence for women to then be able to grow. From everything I’ve heard, I’d have to agree and I think her comment is a great place to leave this article.

She said: “All female networking groups are fantastic for those taking their first steps into business, particularly for startups, sole traders and to inspire young women. However for successful networking to continue I believe a guest should never be too ’comfortable’ with their surroundings or the other people in the room. Once you outgrow your network, it’s time to research and find others to tap into.“

So, what do you think? Are women’s networking groups important? Should there be a place for them? What have your experiences been like in the North East? Have your say by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks to all our contributors.

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