Professional women are increasingly setting up ‘new girls networks’ to challenge the 'old boy networks' that still exist in areas such as the civil service and provide mutual career support.
New research from think-tank Demos argues that the growth in women’s professional networks – such as one for senior female civil servants – is helping women to ‘have it all’, providing personal career development while acting together to tackle workplace inequality.
Girlfriends in high places says that men have long relied on informal network to help them to operate inside organisational hierarchies such as the civil service and that women have hitherto been excluded from such networks at work.
The report, which was based on a survey of 235 professional women working mainly in the public sector, comes as figure from the Cabinet Office show that women now make up 26 per cent of the senior civil service and 23 per cent of top management posts. The government aims to increase this proportion to 35 per cent by 2005.
The report argues that this target is unlikely to be met through conventional equal opportunities policies and that both the government and private sector employers should set up and support women's networks to improve female representation.
But it admits that women’s networks still have a long way to go before they can rival the long-established networks that have consolidated power among men.
The report's author, Helen McCarthy, said: "In the 1970s, when the first women's networks were being created, the old boys' network was seen as a much more malign influence and as perhaps more overt in the way it expressed itself.
"Men in the office would be openly chauvinistic, making women feel excluded. Today, the exclusion that women experience is different. They aren't overtly excluded and they don't feel that the old boys' network is a deliberate male conspiracy against them, but it is there."
But a large part of the problem, she admits, is simply down to the differences between the way men and women work and interact."
"A younger man can go for a drink with a more senior man to talk about his career, but if a younger woman asks a man out for a drink with the same purpose, it can provoke gossip.
"Men may go to the pub and start talking about football, then mention something about a promotion coming up. Women can feel excluded by this male bonding, which, while it may not be deliberate sexism, has the same effect as the traditional old boys' network."
Unintentional problems have also been caused by the raft of recent legislation designed to help women. Flexible working, in particular, can mean that women are excluded from vital after-hours socialising and informal office networks.
"Flexible working has helped a lot of women juggle their busy lives, but may have unintentionally put them at a disadvantage by taking them further out of the loop at work," Helen McCarthy said.
"Women working flexible hours are not around for pub trips, and they are often affected by 'big briefcase syndrome' where they need to carry their work in a bag big enough to pick up shopping on the way home."
It is in response to what McCarthy terms "these forms of informal power" that women have begun to set up more formal networks that operate during working hours with the approval of employers, particularly those in the public sector.
And she added that as a result, Britain was entering a new era of work-based networked feminism that suits the complex gender politics of big organisations.
A survey carried out for the report found that almsot nine out of ten women (87 per cent) liked the idea of women-only networks. But separatism was still a problem for some and two-thirds of the non-joiners said the women-only character of these networks was the factor most likely to keep them away.
"With networks, you can be sure that no one's checking your feminist credentials on the door," McCarthy said. "It's OK to want to get ahead and be successful. But equally women want to help each other and they want a fairer deal as a group.
"Networked feminists recognise that 'having it all' means acting to advance women collectively as well as realising their own personal goals."