Women’s networks: Professional development or victim support?

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Just when you think no one could come out with a more ill-considered statement – they actually do. May 2012 Jack Welch, the famous ex-CEO of GE, suggested at a Women’s forum that women’s networking groups are simply ”victim support units” and what women need to do is “over-deliver and over-perform“. Seemingly this comment was followed by a horrified silence. He had a lucky escape!

 

If men attending networking and training forums are considered to be undergoing management and professional development, why would women acquiring exactly the same skills be seen to be part of a victim support program? 3Plus has been set up to support women in the achievement of their professional goals. All women participating would say that they are seeking personal and professional development. Not one would consider themselves to be a ”victim”, which is I’m sure the way most members of women’s networks the world over feel. It also makes a mockery of the true meaning of “victim“. There is no doubt that there are many individuals globally, both men and women, who are genuinely victims and need support. And obviously if there are victims, by Jack Welch’s usage, that also means there must be perpetrators.

Fresh back from the JUMP Forum in Paris where I ran a Personal Branding workshop and then participated later in the day, as a delegate, I could see first hand the added value and impact that a women’s network and event can have on a group of women. My own atelier was up first and the theme was back to basics. Identifying and articulating your own success stories: simply putting into words achievements and skills is key to the creation of a personal brand and critical in developing a career management strategy. This is a process that from my own observations I would say men and women can struggle with in equal measure, so it’s a gender-neutral training. But once men understand the process, they are generally fine. Women however, have other challenges for which they need to develop awareness and learn additional skills to overcome.

Playing catch-up

Men have been socialized, trained and recognized to stand out in their own spheres since we moved out of caves. Women on the other hand, are socialized, trained and generally not recognized in their roles as wives, daughters, sisters, mothers as well as domestically and administratively, for supporting men. What is key is that in the last 40 years for the first time women are competing with men in critical mass in their arenas. So women are playing catch up and men are having to learn their way to handle it too. Old school boomers (like Jack Welch) are being caught off-guard and flail around, which I hope accounts for such a mindless remark.

The good life?

Women in France would seem to have it all, with great employment conditions, maternity leave, post-natal and childcare possibilities that are the envy of many other countries. In addition, although women constitute 20% of board membership, somewhat surprisingly, France was in 48th position in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report in 2011. This is attributable to 2 main areas of disparity: political and economic. With women compromising 50% of the new French government cabinet, I imagine the political component of that statistic will surely move upwards, but further anomalies are evidenced by French women earning 26% less than their male counterparts and still carrying out 66% of household chores.

So there is clearly a pardox relating to the talent pipeline which needs closer examination. This is further reflected in additional research which suggests that 75% of French people believe that men generally have better lives than women. French historian Michelle Perrot says “France may be Scandinavian in its employment statistics, but it remains profoundly Latin in attitude”, and Senior Director World Economic Forum, Saadia Zahidi adds that in France “corporate culture does not encourage the rise of women”.

So when I posed a question to my workshop (comprised mainly of French women) asking how comfortable they felt publicly owning their professional successes in their, for the most part, male-dominated corporate cultures, almost 100% said they felt inhibited. As the day progressed, I observed the participants coming out of their shells. Many women sought me out to tell me how the combination of practical training and intellectual debate in a collaborative and supportive environment had given them huge added value.

Nature not gender

This was a mainly female environment but there were also men playing key roles. For most women it was a welcome change from the frequently disinterested, uninformed or even critical audience which is quite often the norm for them. However, the main factor for women is generally the nature not the gender of the network.  Women are just trying to have their needs met and this is where it can happen. For most it is a supplement to their other professional activities.

But more importantly, why women taking charge of their own careers, in their own way, in an environment created to support them, makes them victims in Jack Welch’s eyes is simply beyond my comprehension.

This is just another case of “damned if we do, doomed if we don’t.

What do you think?

P.S. 30th May 2012:  In the interests of total transparency and to gain further understanding I received the tweet shown below from Jack Welch and offered him the opportunity to amplify his view-point via a comment.   ” @EszterforCEE @DorothyDalton Thanks for comment..I was totally taken out of context..good luck with your career”.

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