Women face a number of challenges in entrepreneurship, from securing funding in a male-dominated field to building a network. In fact, a 2019 study revealed that male college students in the “right” network are 1.5 times more likely to progress into a leadership role after graduation than men in the wrong ones. Women, however, did not have the same boost even if they were in the right network, demonstrating the challenges of navigating gender in the business world. Yet, when women were in a social network composed primarily of women, they became 2.5 times more likely to assume leadership roles after graduation.
The Promise of Professional Networks for Female Entrepreneurs
From this study, many people inferred that women-centered professional networking groups were a positive thing. However, even newer research from the University of Edinburgh has complicated the issue. The findings suggest that women-focused groups may actually do more harm than good when it comes to supporting female entrepreneurs.
The problem with these networks is that they may not actually overcome the sexism that is inherent within the world of entrepreneurship. Researchers at Columbia University found that decisionmakers prefer male contacts when making a third-party referral, at least in sectors typically dominated by men. These findings challenge the belief that women who aren’t getting value from networking aren’t doing it properly and affirms the fundamental biases at play.
While it seems that female-focused networking groups are unable to overcome the biases in entrepreneurship, they may have other benefits. One of the most important aspects of women-centered networks is their ability to start conversations about gender bias. Change cannot happen until the issue is put on the table and important conversations begin. These networks celebrate diversity while raising awareness of an unconscious bias that many people probably do not think exists—and there is real value in these processes. However, it may be worthwhile to think about how these networks can be reframed to provide the biggest benefit and strongest support to female entrepreneurs.
What the New Research Says about the Utility of Female-Only Networks
The University of Edinburgh looked at female-driven entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland, a region of the United Kingdom with relatively low rates of women entrepreneurs. Here, the support of female entrepreneurs has relied heavily on the creation of women-only networks to connect members with role models and mentors, not to mention access to funding and other opportunities.
The researchers spoke to entrepreneurs from these female-only networks, as well as those from mixed networks and individuals who belong to both sorts of organizations. The conversations showed that the female-only networks largely placed members in marginalized groups that did not get the same access to opportunities as mixed networks.
Researchers ultimately concluded that entrepreneurship policies targeting women were not making them equal or supporting their independence, but were instead limiting their overall access to opportunities. Women-only networks, the researchers argued, only serve to keep women at the margins of entrepreneurship rather than integrating them more fully into a male-dominated industry. In general, the sorts of networks created for women tended to be limited by geography and offered more social support than actual assistance with building a business. Ultimately, the researchers found that female entrepreneurs have a strong sense of camaraderie, especially in terms of driving change in a world dominated by men, and therefore have the potential to offer real, focused support.
The networks studied in Northern Ireland largely suffered from poor leadership. Many of the network managers saw themselves as fighting against sexism and promoting inclusion, but the female entrepreneurs themselves did not feel the same way. Often, these individuals felt that the networks confirmed their marginalized position in the entrepreneurial world. The research from Columbia actually showed that female entrepreneurs are better served by going directly to the people they want to meet rather than building networks and going through intermediaries, which can waste time and energy in the long run.
The Path Forward for Supporting Women in the Entrepreneurial World
All of these findings are interesting in the context of findings showing that female-only social networks can lift up female entrepreneurs. The current research suggests that a networking group is not the same as a social network, but there is hope that these groups can change to meet the needs of women entrepreneurs.
The stakes are high when it comes to supporting female entrepreneurs. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that female-managed startups perform better on average than those headed by men. In a follow-up study by BCG, the global GDP would grow by 3 percent to 6 percent with an overall boost to the global economy of up to $5 trillion if rates of entrepreneurship among women grew to be roughly equal to those among men.
Hopefully, these new research findings will help some of the existing networks reconfigure their approach and provide more direct and tangible support in helping women overcome the inherent inequities of entrepreneurship.