At last...a women's network for the sector!

26 Oct 2010 Voices

Regular blogger Rowena Lewis gives her thoughts on a new network for women working in the charity sector.

Rowena Lewis

Regular blogger Rowena Lewis gives her thoughts on a new network for women working in the charity sector.

On 14th October 2010 Third Sector Women - the first network for women working at all levels across the voluntary sector - opened its doors at a launch event hosted by the fabulous Bates Wells and Braithwaite.   Fifty-five women from assistant to chief executive came together to discuss the state of equal pay in the sector and share experiences of negotiating pay.

This energising event was long overdue.  After all the private and public sectors enjoy a rich fabric of women’s networks ranging from professional to internal and even regional networks, so why has it taken so long to establish a network for women across the voluntary sector? 

In fact, do we even need a sector women’s network?  After all the early women’s networks were established to counter the ‘old boy’s club’ by linking up the few women that had ambitions to smash the glass ceiling for peer support.  But the voluntary sector is predominantly female and now that 46% of chief executives are women we’re hardly a minority?

Some argue that women network differently to men and that women need these spaces.  Gail Blanke a US life-coach argues that men think “Who do I know who has what I need right now?” and ask for it, whereas women are, in her words “more complex”, seeking to create connections and friendships.  Blanke suggests that whilst men are selfish in their approach to networking, women are more collaborative, thinking “What can I do for you in order to get what I need?”  But do women really network differently to men and is that a good enough reason to create networking spaces for women in our sector?

Truth be told, I’ve not always been a fan of women’s networks.  In fact I was once more of a cynic.  Until I attended an Institute of Director’s event a few years back where men outnumbered women ten to one, and a modest rabble formed an orderly queue to seemingly talk at my breasts.  I was frankly disappointed that my unavoidable status as a woman stood in the way of several men making a professional connection with me.  That was perhaps the first time I noticed that networking events could sometimes feel like a ‘meat-market’, but not the last.  Heck!  I’ve even been groped in the name of my profession at ‘networking’ events.

So for me, women’s networks aren’t about playing the ‘old boys’ at their own game, they’re not about pandering to stereotypes and suggesting that women and men should network separately because they have different networking ‘styles’.  For me, women’s networks are important because of the way I feel the moment I step into a women only space - I have confidence that my contribution will be taken seriously, I know from experience that I will make genuine and often lasting connections across my peer group, and that I won’t need to fend off unwelcome advances.  

So do we really need a women’s network in a sector that is predominantly female?  I say absolutely!  And the feverpitch exchange of ideas and experiences at Bates Wells Braithwaite t’other week suggests I’m just one of many fans of the new Third Sector Women. 

Third Sector Women is the brainchild of Rachel Whale, managing director of Vanilla Freelance.  Find out more at