The Dark Side of Women's Networking Events
Updated: Aug 11, 2019
Yesterday I received a call from a woman who wanted me to speak at her company's upcoming Women's Networking Event. She said the company started these events because they realized they need more women working for them, and more women in leadership. This, I applaud. Standing ovation, really. She said that these networking events help bring women together so that this company can tell them the many ways it's a great place for women to work. As she enumerated all the many reasons working for the company was good for women, I damn near applied over the phone.
She explained that these events are a new initiative from corporate headquarters (this is a massive company with thousands and thousands of employees world-wide). Each region was doing their best to set up an event for women that would both give them a strong and meaningful networking experience, and a potential interest in working for them. Again, still clapping.
Then she told me where the event would be located. If pressed to describe this locale, I'd use the word "swanky". She explained that the company provides a nice plated dinner free of charge to the attendees. So when I asked what their budget was for the female speakers they bring in, she hedged. I know she felt awkward explaining to me that there was, in fact, no budget for the speakers.
She was hopeful that I'd be willing to come talk for free as a way of giving back to the cause. That cause, remember, is that of helping women come to work for a place where they can be paid well.
This woman, by the way, is not guilty of anything. This isn't her initiative and it isn't her budget to control. She was extremely professional, gracious, and very respectful to me. But I told her I had to decline, and then I took some time to fully explain why. She said she could appreciate my decline, understood my stance, and asked if I would be willing to write my concerns and recommendations in an email so that she can try to further inform the company on such matters. May we all be like her.
Below is the letter I wrote.
Thank you so much for our conversation yesterday! You are the epitome of professional and I appreciated you reaching out to me as a potential speaker for your Women's Networking event. Unfortunately, I have to respectfully decline. As I had said on the phone, I get paid to speak. As a professor, I make a living doing that inside and outside of the classroom. Further, because career development and salary negotiations for women are my areas of expertise, I wanted to give just a bit of feedback to help the company on their (very admirable) goal of hiring and promoting more female employees. I get a number of requests to speak at women's networking events. Sometimes they are industry associations, sometimes nonprofits, sometimes they are businesses. The goal of these events is to give women a space to network and hopefully grow together. While those serve a very valuable purpose, there are some drawbacks. Especially in the way for-profit companies tend to use them. One issue is that companies never seem willing to pay speakers for these types of workshops. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. 1) It devalues the speakers' expertise. A company would never ask its employees to do their jobs for free, and yet they reach out to speakers and ask them to. Regardless of if the speaker has years of speaking experience, or this is their first time, if they are being asked to impart their knowledge and expertise, they should be paid. Any speaker. Every time. Even if they say they are willing to speak for free, you shouldn't accept free. This part is vital to changing the system where women are vastly underpaid. We should never allow women to accept less than they are worth. And they are worth being paid for their skills, experience, expertise, and time. 2) A budget is a philosophical document. So if the goal is getting more women to the table, into the company, or as customers, there needs to be a budget behind that. The bigger the budget, the bigger the priority. If getting more women to work for a company is billed simply as "advertisement" that's a problem. If women know you are putting money behind an initiative, then they know it's a priority. If they know it's a priority, they are more likely to work for you. "Advertising" has a very different priority than "women's initiatives." 3) Asking women to come speak for free and saying that it is "giving back to the community" further exacerbates the obstacles that are already in front of women. Which is that we are frequently asked to do more (for no money) and told it's for the good of the company/clients/community. Women are asked to volunteer at work or for the community at vastly higher rates than men. So, if ********* really wants more women in the company, they need to understand that such requests for free services is in direct opposition of their goal. 4) Women should not carry the burden of raising women up alone. While I applaud *********'s commitment to this, there is one glaring oversight--where are the men? Women's Networking Events never invite men. If men are unaware of the challenges women face in the workplace, it will never get better. Instead, the narrative will continue to be that this is a "women's issue" and it is up to women to change it. Further, if women don't see men from the company saying, "Yes! We want you to work here! We value you!" they have no way to trust what it will be like on the inside. Will the culture be welcoming? If all they see are other women at an off-site location, but don't know if the culture or men will be welcoming, then there's still a pretty big barrier. Further, these events can't just be "We are ********** and you should want to work here!" It should also be, "We are **********, tell us what you would need and want to choose us over any other employer." Women positively impact the bottom dollar of a company in vast ways. Women know this. While we appreciate being wined and dined, we prioritize being valued and respected. We are one of the greatest assets to a company and to our economy. The request is only that we get treated as such. I hope some or all of this feedback is helpful so that your company can be highly successful in their goal of attracting and retaining talented women in your organization. I really enjoyed our conversation and I do hope we can work together some time in the future. If you ever need any counsel as your company moves forward with their initiatives, please don't hesitate to reach out.
Meg Myers Morgan, PhD
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