Why female-led networks are set to change the business world as we know it

New forms of networking are creating spaces to be vulnerable, share stories and create connections. Kelli Lane, Managing Director at co:collective introduces the female-led networks inspiring change across the industry.

Kelli Lane

Managing Director co:collective


For generations, women have had little hope of thriving within the deeply patriarchal networks in the business world. Businessmen have cross-pollinated social activities with professional networking; sporting events, bars, and nightclubs are notorious settings for business deals.

Take a round of golf for example. Eighteen holes provides the opportunity for two businessmen to spend six hours of uninterrupted one-to-one time. How long would it take an agency exec to get six hours of undivided attention with a CMO? Months. Executives know this, with 80% admitting that playing golf enables them to establish new business relationships. The issue with this is that golf is historically a male dominated game; only 20% of all golfers today are female.

We’ve been conditioned to think about social activities along gender stereotypes, thus creating gender gaps in our networks.

Kelli Lane

Gender gaps in our networks

Then there are nightclubs. When 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina talks about how she overcame her fears, she includes strip clubs among them. Early in her career, a male supervisor booked lunch with clients at a strip club and told her she should stay back at the office. They left for lunch and she realized she was missing more than a meal. She met her colleagues at their lunch despite her apprehension and anxiety, and she still references it today as a pivotal learning moment in business. The shock of this story to me, is not actually that she showed up; it’s that a business lunch at a strip club was ever an acceptable activity. 

It’s hard to believe that in 2020, we’re still a long way away from gender parity in almost every industry in the US. But when I look at the power of networks in business, it’s unfortunately not surprising. We’ve been conditioned to think about social activities along gender stereotypes, thus creating gender gaps in our networks.

A recent analysis by Harvard Business Review found that the key reason female-founded start-ups fail is a lack of access to a network, which is bad news for all of us considering female-founded companies in the US on average drive 10% higher cumulative revenue than male-founded businesses. Higher revenue businesses lead to more jobs, which results in a healthier economy.

A new type of networking model

This is why it is deeply encouraging, albeit long overdue, to finally see a new type of networking model designed for, and by, women. Female-founded, female-led networks such as Chief, The Wing, and Women in Innovation in the US, and AllBright in the UK are changing the business landscape for women.

These new female-led networks were born out of the realisation that the culture and mechanism of a networking group needs to be different for women. They are programmed to be more empathetic, designed around connecting with women on a human level, not just a business level. Topics that get discussed include working mum life and imposter syndrome, subjects that are not part of the conversation at your typical male executive club.

Most male-dominated networks don’t encourage displays of vulnerability, instead hailing the person who appears to be succeeding in all areas of life as the ideal. But new women’s groups are creating places for females in business to be vulnerable, introducing an ethos for a different kind of community where women connect and support one another on multiple levels.

As a member of two of these networks, I have been part of conversations around salary transparency, with women sharing personal salary data and offering advice to their female peers on what to ask for in terms of remuneration; crucial support when you consider that women are statistically much less likely to ask for a pay rise than men.

It’s also critical for more women to support other young women to get the board seats of the future.

Kelli Lane

Fostering safe spaces

I have participated in a sub-group of grad school alumnae connecting and coaching female students on how best to address gender issues in their coursework. Recently, a group of senior executives spearheaded a meet up to discuss their experience of getting onto a paid board. It is so inspiring to hear about their journey, from a time when this kind of female network did not exist, and most board rooms were 90% men. It’s also critical for more women to support other young women to get the board seats of the future.

Some of these groups have been criticized for excluding men. While there is tremendous value in creating networks across gender divides, the reality is that when men are in the room, the dynamic changes for women. A study from George Washington University showed that men interrupt women 33% more often than when they are talking with other men. When tasks are doled out to multi-gender teams, women raise their hand 48% more often for non-promotable tasks. These female-led support structures are shining a light on these statistics and providing safe spaces for women to work together to define how to shift the workplace behaviours, and then go back into mixed gender meeting rooms and be more empowered and effective.

So, what kind of impact can we hope these new kinds of female networks have? I hope we see more funding at the macro level, and more sub-groups within each network to foster intimate, safe spaces for women to truly support and connect with one another. If the female workforce of the US can bring a dose of this culture of empathy and inclusion into their own businesses, we will not only be creating better workplaces; we will create businesses that operate in concert with rising consumer expectations of transparency and doing right by employees, consumers and the planet.

Guest Author

Kelli Lane

Managing Director co:collective


Kelli Lane is the Managing Director at co:collective, a creative and strategic transformation consultancy. She is responsible for office operations, client engagement and growth. She has led business and brand transformation projects for Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, and Sallie Mae. Prior to joining co: Kelli worked in client services for VML, DDB, and Digitas, leading client business across a range of categories including financial services, consumer electronics, insurance, luxury auto, and CPG. Her passion is in the "story-telling and making”, whether that’s creating communication programs, breakthrough applications, or challenger brand strategies. Kelli earned a double BA in Fine Arts and Art History with a minor in Architecture from Trinity College, and a Masters in Strategic Design and Business Management from Parsons The New School.

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