I have been involved in women's networks in science either passively or actively for about twenty-five years. These are my thoughts on women's networks.
Why do we need them? What are the benefits? Women's networks can: • Provide a safe and supportive environment for women to exchange experiences. • Provide a means for women to exchange information. • Build women's skills by giving them the opportunity to take on various roles within the network. • Increase women's visibility. • Enable women to push for change more effectively.
How can they be effective? • Provide a regular programme of events to maintain momentum. It does not matter if attendance at some events is low. Just getting the email saying that something is happening reminds people that the network is active. • The best publicity is word of mouth. Women who have had a good experience tell their friends. • Maintain a positive focus. There are many types of events that women's networks can run, for example, speaker events, career-focussed events and social events. Generally the types of events a network runs will depend on the interests and enthusiasms of its members. Although, in principle, women's networks provide a way for women to make their views on existing policies or proposed changes to policies known, in practice, whether or not this happens depends on whether an individual feels strongly enough about the issue, and has the time and energy, to do something about it.
Structures In my experience members of women's networks are not interested in formal structures. They prefer informal arrangements to prescriptive specifications. It is better to make things happen and then worry about structures. Nevertheless, in my experience there are minimum requirements if the network is to be more than a handful of friends who happen to meet fairly regularly. There needs to be someone who is visibly responsible for the network. This person will often be known as the Chair of the network. There also needs to be a treasurer, someone to keep records and someone who is responsible for communicating with members, for example, via a newsletter. These responsibilities do not need to be held by different people but I think it helps if there are identifiable people taking responsibility for these areas. It gives people a point of contact if they have a query or suggestion or if they want to invite a representative of the network to an event. It is also important that the network does not become reliant on one or two people otherwise it can collapse if one of them gets a new job, has a baby or moves away. This means there has to be a way of ensuring new people take up positions of responsibility. Having an ‘incoming president’ or ‘incoming chair’ position is useful for ensuring continuity.
Resources In order to function effectively a network needs some resources. Obviously the time and energy of those who organise events are essential. Women's networks within organisations need to be properly resourced either with money or with in-kind assistance such as free meeting rooms. The work that people put into such networks needs to be recognised as part of their job and not seen as an optional extra. A women's network can increase productivity, for example, by helping women find effective solutions to difficulties they may be experiencing. For women's networks operating outside of a single employer the situation is more difficult, although they play a very important role in broadening the range of experiences available to their members. Such networks have to have sufficient resources to pay for venue hire and refreshments as well as, in some cases, expenses for speakers. These resources have to found either from members, potentially deterring some women from participating, or through sponsorship, which can be time-consuming to find and is especially difficult for women with day jobs who do not necessarily have the time to contact and follow-up potential sponsors.
Exclusive or Inclusive Every women's network I have been involved with has, at some point, discussed the issue: is it just for women or can men join too? This has usually been a question of principle rather than practice since men usually self-exclude anyway. One one hand women's networks need to provide a safe and supportive environment for women. On the other many of the issues that constrain women's full participation in employment are never going to be resolved by groups of women talking among themselves. We need men to get involved. In my view a safe and supportive environment means one in which the discourse is set and shaped by women not one from which men are excluded.
What would help? • Money – of course. Ideally support would be aimed at helping the network achieve its objectives but inevitably a sponsor tends to want the network to help achieve the sponsor’s objectives. • Recognition - line managers making sure women know about opportunities to participate in women's networks and senior managers and influential members of the business community promoting the benefits of women's networks. • Capacity building in skills such as effective use of the web from on-line booking to running a discussion forum, running effective meetings, and fund-raising.
After working for many years as a research physicist, I became a part-time project officer with the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI) at the University of Cambridge in the UK. I've also been a member of the steering group of the Cambridge AWiSE networking for women in SET. I am now based in New Zealand.