Girl Down: Why Networking With Only Women Can Hurt Your Career

“If the world were ruled by women then there would be no war… just a couple of nations not talking with each other.”

Whitney Johnson, co-founder of the hedge fund Rose Park Advisors and a regular contributor for the Harvard Business Review blogs, recently wrote a post where she posed the question,  “Are you stuck in a girls’ club?” She was talking about the fact that though women’s networking groups are great and do provide that wonderful sense of girl power, in many fields, just networking with other women is a major career disadvantage. Whitney recently told a male CEO who wanted to introduce her to another woman:

“If a man with 500 people in his network, likely skewing male, only connects me with women he knows, then my power, or ability to get things done, is diminished.”

If you go by the numbers, women are at an automatic disadvantage. Though it looks like 2012 will be a huge year for female CEOs, growth for women at the executive level is still stalled in many ways. In 2009, women held 15.2% of Fortune 500 board seats, according to women’s issues research group Catalyst. In both 2009 and 2010, 12% of Fortune 500 companies had no women serving on their boards. Female leaders  also only make up about 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs which is just a 1% increase from seven years ago.

There are just more men in the business world. “If a woman wants advice from someone who has been there, done that, then it pretty much has to be a man,” said Deborah Ellinger, president of Restoration Hardware. According to a recent survey from USA Today of female CEOs, chairs and company founders, when asked to identify the one mentor who had the most influence on their careers, 33 of the 34 who responded identified a man. Johnson told The Grindstone in an interview that in the VC world, for example, 97% of them are men.  “So if you are female and you only go to women, the pool of capital available is much smaller,” she said.

We asked some women and men in business what they thought of the disadvantages of women only networking with other women. Author Barry Maher told The Grindstone:

“Obviously the broader your network, the more powerful it’s likely to be. Limiting your network to one sex is just that, limiting. If there are never going to be any men anyway in your career path, if for example you’re politicking to be Mother Superior of a monastic convent, then there’s no reason to include men in your network. Otherwise, I’d give it serious consideration.”

Thom Singer, author and career expert, told The Grindstone:

“To only network with women would be short sighted. We would look down on men who “only networked with other men”. People who claim to exclude other races would be shunned. Why would it be smart for women to only socialize professionally with other women?

Women have been active in the workforce for generations, and they work side by side with men all the time. All opportunities come from people (I said people, not people of any particular gender). I have given and received amazing career opportunities through networking, and it does not matter if the connections are men or women. In male dominated industries, to limit your networking to only women would cut off a lot of opportunities.”

Dr. Kathy Gruver is the owner of a small business in Santa Barbara and an author. She said she often finds that womens’ networking groups are not as productive as when men are involved:

“I have discussions all the time about the downside of women only organizations. I think it’s very easy to get in a comfortable, girl-friendy mentality with these types of groups and not encourage yourself to grow and face new challenges. Women can tend towards catty, but not necessarily competitive and I think healthy competition urges businesses forward. I have also found that many women don’t take business as serious as men and this has been a problem at many networking events. Many women are not self-confident and approached their elevator speech with an almost apologetic attitude.

As much as I encourage women in business and like to see the population grow, I think we could benefit from being around more men in business. Men have been doing it longer than us and I truly believe we can learn from them.”

Beth Campell Duke, Principal at CampbellDuke Personal Branding, talked about how only networking with women displays a sense of fear. Women are more comfortable with women so it is easier, but this is your career. You don’t want to just stay in one business circle because it takes less work on your part. She told The Grindstone:

“The most important aspect of networking when it’s specifically focused on your career goals is to ensure that you’re networking with the right group(s). This will help you answer the gender question. If your goals are to advance in almost any career, then you’re going to be networking most effectively in groups of other professionals and groups of potential clients. If either of these is ‘women only’, then by all means head there to network, but don’t kid yourself – networking is about working your ‘loose ties’ – and you’re not maximizing your potential whenever you limit yourself.

Networking ONLY with women doesn’t go unnoticed. If you expect to advance a career, you need to be comfortable in a wide variety of situations. At some point, you need to get yourself comfortable networking with all kinds of people if you hope to continue to grow your business or career.”

Johnson says don’t be upset if a man only offers to introduce you to other women because it is still a huge compliment that they are asking to present you to someone. But what you can do is try to ask effectively and specifically for what kind of connection you are looking for. Johnson wrote:

“As the theory of disruptive innovation explains, the odds of success are low when we make a frontal assault on the status quo. But when we play on the periphery, opening one mind at a time, the odds go up that we’ll push down our glass walls. Tear down those walls, and the ceiling just may come tumbling down, too.”

Photo: Andresr/

Share This Post:
    • Vicki Donlan

      As 51% of the population women would do very well if they would support women first. Men have done this for years. Women’s networks are powerful when the women in them decide to work together — there is powwer in numbers — of course, women must network in a variety of business networks but we will never get ahead if we continually bash each other. Women have much to share and must become leaders — that day will only come when they believe in each other as the solution not the problem.