Gender Networks: A Network for Network Leaders

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By Aimée Atkinson, Faculty and Service Liaison Manager on the Student Journey Programme, and one of UWE Bristol’s Women’s Forum Coordinators

Back in October I made the trip to London to attend a breakfast meeting hosted by Gender Networks. This is a network specifically for people who lead, chair or coordinate networks in their own organisations, across a broad range of sectors and industries. The Gender Network aims to support networks, at all stages of maturity, and offer to help network leaders find mentors from across sectors to help them take their network where they want it to go. Their meetings are an opportunity to be informed of the latest issues, as well as a chance to hear from a broad range of speakers, and an opportunity to share best practices. This is a membership organisation, and UWE Bristol’s Women’s Forum Coordinators had been invited to attend as guests of Vanessa Vallely OBE.

Vanessa, pictured above is an author, speaker and entrepreneur and is best known for launching We Are The City as a vehicle to help women progress in their careers. Vanessa also founded the diversity forum Gender Networks, the Rising Star Awards and TechWomen100 awards. A number of staff from UWE Bristol have won Rising Star Awards historically, including Jessica Coggins and Janice St. John-Matthews. Vanessa is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to Women and the Economy. One of the highlights of my day was meeting Vanessa, who despite her status is both warm, and approachable, as well as inspirational.

The meeting was being hosted by Investec, who are part of the network. Members take it in turns to host the quarterly meetings, and they usually take place in London. Investec are known for their zebra, and attendees were delighted to see the zebra was also in attendance! (See image in top left of tweet above).

The whole event only took a total of 2 hours, beginning at 8am with a breakfast reception and an opportunity to meet fellow attendees. Most of the women I spoke to were based in London, however some had traveled from Manchester and Leeds, including Simone Roche, CEO and founder of Northern Power Women.

Despite being a short event, it was definitely action packed! After an introduction from Vanessa and a welcome from our Investec hosts, where they told us about their Taboo series, and the work they’d done to bring sceptics on board, as well as how they’d opened up their women’s network to male allies. We were then treated to a round up of gender related news from Harriet Minter who is a journalist and broadcaster. Harriet talked us through how companies can ensure maternity leave does not hurt a woman’s career, how Facebook have gotten into trouble for targeting their job adverts, the importance of gender allies in public as well as private spheres, the rise of working mothers, and the need to have women on boards.

Following the round up of the news, Vanessa encouraged us all to do some speed networking, with a twist. Vanessa encourages networking at all the events she hosts, and has noticed that people tend to network with people that look like themselves. All the blondes talk to blondes, the people with glasses find someone else with glasses. Therefore Vanessa set us the challenge of talking to someone who didn’t look like we did. I thought this was an interesting approach, and while enforced networking can often feel a bit forced, or awkward, fortunately this didn’t!

This was followed by table work, where the room organised themselves into small groups and shared their local successes, plans, and best practices.

Following this was a series of inspirational speakers, which began with Ann Francke, author and CEO of the Chartered Management Institute. Ann spoke about the gender pay gap, a topic she is an expert in, and one she has spoken about very regularly. Ann talked about the Broken Window Effect – this is a criminology theory, and refers to the work undertaken by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton in 1990s in which tackling small crimes such as graffiti and broken windows lead to a reduction in crime rates. Ann argued that by tolerating small gender slights we are a long way off solving the bigger issues, such as the gender pay gap.

Ann was followed by Heather Melville, OBE. Heather talked about the need to diversify networks, and that by diversifying speakers it can encourage a diversified membership. Heather also spoke about the importance of sustainable networks and the need to encourage new leaders. She talked about the risk of a network hinging on one person, and that if that person leaves, it is possible the whole network can fall apart. Not only this, but it is a good development opportunity to bring new leaders on board, and it doesn’t have to mean you, as a leader, leaving the network entirely.

Heather was followed by Sherry Coutu, CBE. Sherry spoke about Founders4Schools and the importance of children, and particularly girls, needing role models, and how these are not always evident in their family or local community. Therefore Founders4Schools aims to inspire school aged children to reach their potential by providing them with role models, and in particular role models that they can relate to.

All in all it was an action packed, inspiring couple of hours, and there’s definitely lessons that UWE’s Women’s Forum can learn from the speakers. And what’s more these lessons are easy to share with any of the other staff networks at UWE, particularly around sustainable networks and diversifying speakers, to in turn diversify membership.

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