Are Women's Leadership Networks Outdated?

by Phil Dourado on Feb 12, 2018

I’d been working with a colleague for several months on a book she was writing on women and leadership, when we both had a rude shock.

Deloitte, the giant accountancy practice, announced that it was closing down its company-sponsored women’s groups (August of last year).

I (a man) thought this was terrible. My colleague (a woman, used to be my boss, incidentally), thought it was great!

We’d had this disagreement before. I ran an online leadership community for her at her old company, before she became a consultant. As the top HR person in the business, she was my boss.

“I think we need a ‘women’s leadership’ group in the community, maybe even private and for women only,” I’d said to her at one of our regular meetings on what was happening in the online leadership community and what the company was learning from it.

“No way,” she said immediately. “It would side-line the women.

You have to stay in the middle of the conversation to influence it. 

It doesn’t matter what senior men say about welcoming input from women’s groups and networks, they really see them as a platform for radical women to sound off in. It keeps the dangerous conversations away from where the power really is.”

A number of ‘Lean In’ groups had formed spontaneously around the company, prompted by Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name. And my boss let me run a quick consultation within her company’s global leadership community to see if a women & leadership group in there would be welcome.

The responses split 50/50. One prominent and highly respected woman leader in the company responded to me, privately:

“God no! I couldn’t think of anything worse than a women’s group in here!”

So, we created a group for the 50% of respondents who said they wanted one, and the conversations in there were mutually supportive & useful, said the participants. My then-boss shrugged her shoulders and let them get on with it. But, didn’t herself join in.

Women's Leadership Networks

Back to a few years later when I was a sounding board and constructive critic for her, as she’d asked me to be, on the book she was working on, on women and leadership. The Deloitte bombshell drops.  I read Aviva Wittenberg Cox’s Harvard article on the rationale behind it. And I suddenly ‘got’ what my former boss had been saying all along.

Deloitte, like many if not most large organisations, sponsors internal ‘minority’ group networks as part of its inclusion and equalities work. They provide a voice and make recommendations on the areas where the organisations need to improve to create a balanced workforce, with positions of power more evenly spread across diverse people, instead of being concentrated in the hands of white males.

Wittenberg Cox points out this – the creation of ‘approved of’ internal networks to help move forward on diversity and inclusion - started with Xerox in 1970 as a radical move and has become mainstream since.

But, argued Deloitte, expecting women and other excluded groups to argue their way into the corridors of power from the outside, hasn’t worked.

So, in their radical move, they have stopped supporting their company-wide groups and instead are training male managers in inclusion and then apparently performance monitoring them on their progress.

Now, I haven’t seen the detail of this performance monitoring. And if it is something like “You only have two senior women in your team: as part of your annual review at the end of this year, if you can’t show me progress in improving that, then you don’t get your bonus this year,” then that could be a powerful lever for change, maybe, if multiplied thousands of times across the business.

But, I’m not convinced you have to close women’s networks and other excluded groups’ networks while trying this radical new approach which, after all, hasn’t been proved to work either. Why can’t they run alongside each other?

What do you think?

Phil Dourado

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