Women’s corporate networks: Spinning webs or wheels?

Organizations set up to promote equality in the boardroom have been around in France since the late 90s, so why are there still so few female CEOs of top companies?

Posted mercredi, février 22 2023
Women’s corporate networks: Spinning webs or wheels?

In January 2022 Christel Heydemann became the new boss of Orange. She is currently one of only a handful of female chiefs on the CAC 40. Of the companies listed on the French stock exchange, only three (Orange, Engie and Veolia) have CEOs who are women, to which we can add the presidents of Legrand and Michelin. On the other side of the Atlantic it’s a similar picture, with just 9% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies being female.

Companies that have seen women reach the boardroom are generally those with a culture of equality engrained in their corporate fabric. Orange has worked hard to advance the cause female empowerment, with the telecoms company earning the GEEIS (Gender Equality European and International Standard) label, a seal of quality created by Arborus, a French advocacy group promoting equality between men and women in the world of work.  

For both men and women, being part of business networks increases visibility and standing within a given industry, thus making securing promotions more likely. But does it matter if the network is female-centric? Opinions would seem to vary.

According to research carried out by the University of Edinburgh, women-only networks perpetuate “the masculinity of entrepreneurship by reinforcing women as being in the margins” and are “largely unable to overcome gender inequities.”

However for others, such as Emmanuelle Gagliardi, president of the Connecting Women network, the advantages of such groups are clear. “These networks bring together female [university] graduates, to help them recognize and understand the glass ceiling that they will certainly encounter in their professional careers and provide valuable advice on how to break through it.”

American import
Female business networks were a concept imported from the United States in the late 1990s at the instigation of women working for US companies’ subsidiaries in France. Their number has mushroomed in the past decade from around 100 in 2017 to some 500 today. The challenge now is to turn their popularity into concrete results. 

For both men and women, being part of business networks increases visibility and standing within a given industry, thus making securing promotions more likely

Would the women currently running major multinationals have reached such an elevated position were it not for the strength of the networks they joined and cultivated during their career? For Gagliardi, ability and force of personality play a big part as well.  “Women who reach the top are all experts, they are the Mozarts of their profession, but the feminization of the boardroom would not be taking place without the influence of networks and these women are all masters at building networks and increasing their profile.”  

There is some evidence that while business networks for women can be important for getting one’s foot in the door, their usefulness diminishes the further one climbs up the corporate ladder. “Even in a business that has largely been feminized, the higher you go on a company’s organizational chart, the greater the disparity between men and women,” remarked the author of The Female Network - a Guide to Boosting Your Career.

Wider definition of diversity
In recent years, women’s corporate networks seem to have understood that the journey to a more representative c-suite will not be served by swapping a boy’s club for a closed shop containing only women, and that substituting a group of white, middle-class, 50-something males for boardrooms containing white, middle-class, 50 something females, would constitute a hollow victory. These networks have increasingly come to embrace a wider definition of diversity and inclusion.

Progress may be difficult to point to at boardroom level, but the function of female business networks as a support structure for women navigating the corporate world should not be dismissed. In the past, many women who did not want to play by the corporate world’s masculine rules ended up throwing in the towel on a career in business.

Which is where the importance of having a network of people encountering the same obstacles to fall back on can encourage women to persevere instead of giving up, in the hope that, one day, the rules of the game may change.