If you’re interested in empowering and nurturing your female employees, think long and hard before you set up an internal women’s network, warns one female CEO — they often backfire.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

Here on Women 2.0, posts outlining what bigger tech companies are doing to attract, empower and inspire female staff get a great reception. And why wouldn’t they? Everyone here is in favor of increasing women’s ambitions, career satisfaction and levels of professional success.

But just because you’re for all these good things, doesn’t mean you should be for any old women’s network your company sets up, warns Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, author and CEO of gender consulting firm 20-first, on the HBR Blog Network recently. Your firm’s intentions may be good, but unless it is willing to put some thought and real resources into their initiative, it can end up doing more harm than good. She explains:

How much longer must we witness the following scenario repeat itself?

A group of men who decide (or are told by government) that they need more women in their teams turn to the few women in senior roles and task them with finding a solution. The women, delighted with this glimmer of interest in their fate, duly throw themselves (in their free time, on top of their day jobs) into launching usually unfunded corporate women’s networks and draft a business case on the corporate advantages of gender balance. A senior woman is put in charge and sent to every external conference as a corporate representative. This results in a women’s conference with lots of motivational speakers and a few male ‘champions’ to encourage the girls. Sound familiar?

At first, everyone is happy. The women are delighted to have some time to themselves. As one senior woman in a Magic Circle law firm told me, “It’s the only place where we can, just momentarily, be ourselves.” The men are delighted that they are ‘doing something’ for women.

But after a few years, the ladies grow embittered, pointing out how little progress has been made in the actual balance of leadership. The gentlemen reaffirm that, despite ‘all that they have done for women’, the ladies still aren’t able to make it.

This sidesteps the real issue: that the men currently in power may not actually have the skills and knowledge to effectively manage across genders… Women’s networks and activities end up… used more to placate women than to promote them.

Want your company’s initiative not to meet the same fate as these toothless predecessors? Check out Wittenberg-Cox’s complete post for ideas on how to create a women’s network that is actually effective.

Women 2.0 readers: Do you agree that women’s networks are often used more to placate women than actually drive change?

Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.


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