Business networking for women only: Is there still a need?
‘It’s not that it’s any less competitive – women are as driven to succeed as men’
Niamh Collins: “There’s a huge openness within female-only groups that you don’t get with mixed groups.”
Maura McAdam: “Female networks are useful for those starting out as they build confidence.”
Niamh Collins is programme director of the Female High Fliers accelerator at the DCU Ryan Academy. She is also involved with Illuminate, the female-only entrepreneurs programme run by the Mill innovation hub in Drogheda, Co Louth. What convinces her that gender-specific programmes are still needed is the demand for them.
The next High Fliers accelerator has already received more than 70 applications for the 10 places available. This is in stark contrast to the number of women applying for the Ryan Academy’s mixed accelerators.
“The interest from women for mixed accelerators is much lower largely because accelerators often conjure up an image of a certain type of male techie in combat trousers that most women don’t relate to,” she says. “As a result, they simply don’t apply. When it’s an all-female programme, the uptake is quite different. There is huge interest, and we get women of all ages with all kinds of ideas.”
In Collins’s experience, “women choose an all-female group not because they lack confidence in themselves or their idea, but because they prefer the camaraderie and support they get from other women. It’s not that it’s any less competitive – the women are as driven to succeed as the men. But there’s a huge openness within female-only groups that you don’t get with mixed groups.
“Juggling family and working commitments is a real issue for a lot of women, and they find it much easier to be in a group that understands that.”
Maura McAdam says women-only networks have a role to play, but they also have their limitations.
“When it comes to increasing sales and achieving strategic goals, such as growth, or accessing new opportunities, then a mixed group is better as it more accurately mirrors the general business environment,” says McAdam, a professor of management and director of entrepreneurship at DCU.
“Women’s’ participation in business is often seen as a ‘problem that needs to be solved’,” she says, “and segregating women into gender-specific silos is generally not helpful. However, female networks are useful for those starting out as they build confidence and reduce the feelings of isolation often experienced when setting up a new business.”
Adds McAdam: “Women need to step back and decide what they want from a network. An all-female group may be suitable long-term for a lifestyle business, where expansion will be limited. But women who want to scale their businesses to an international level need a broader base.
“What’s still an issue, and where all-female groups can be useful, is in helping women to own the role of entrepreneur,” she says. “Most men will happily introduce themselves as entrepreneurs; most women won’t. Yet their high levels of creativity, empathy and their problem-solving abilities mean they really get their heads around who their target market is and develop very successful businesses as a result.”
Rebecca Harrison is managing director of lifestyle and clothing retailer Fishers of Newtownmountkennedy. She is also president of Network Ireland, the long-established (since 1983) women’s networking group, which has more than 700 members in 11 branches across Ireland.
“Women network differently to men,” she says. “They’re generally more open, less competitive and more co-operative and collaborative, and I’ve certainly had a lot of support from and would attribute some of my business success to being part of the group.
“I’ve never felt restricted in business by being female,” Harrison adds. “I’ve just done what I needed to do. But I think a lot of women feel more at ease in an all-female group. They also value the long-term relationships they typically build up there. It’s not about a quick one-off sale. I think there is scope for a range of different types of networking groups, and Network Ireland is just one example, albeit an enduring one.”
She takes the view that networks should move with the times. For example, Network Ireland will this year introduce an online mentoring service.
“What’s different about it is that it’s open to every member. There is a lot of mentoring going on out there, but usually you have to be on a specific programme to avail of it. Having been mentored myself, I think it is very worthwhile, and our members are going to benefit a lot from each other’s experience.”
In 2016, the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) ran an all-women accelerator in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland’s female founders competitive start fund.
This was not on a whim. Some 30 per cent of NDRC start-ups are female-led, and the centre has tracked the success of start-ups with women in the founding team in raising follow-on funding.
What the tracking shows is that gender diversity attracts investors. Among all-male founding teams, 51 per cent went on to raise second-stage funding. In mixed teams, it was 67 per cent. (There is no figure available for all-female teams.)
“The female-only environment seems to really work for women as it offers them role models and peer support, as well as access to expertise that allows them to get through the challenges facing their start-up as quickly as possible,” says Gary Leyden, commercial director at the NDRC.