Humans have been communicating with each other since time immemorial. Some of the earliest forms of exchanging information are cave paintings, oral storytelling, smoke signals and even the beating of drums.
The way we communicate has developed in leaps and bounds since those prehistoric days. Today, if you have something to say, the chances of a broken telephone scenario should be less likely.
As tools to communicate have modernized, so people have been able to connect more easily over longer distances. One of greatest instruments is social media, which has refashioned the way women connect and network with each other.
“I think the world of social media has been the greatest revolution, there’s no censorship, there’s no gatekeepers you join an online community and the networking occurs in that community. It’s one of the best things that has ever happened,” says Judi Nwokedi, who is member of the South African chapter of the International Women’s Forum (IWFSA), a network which connects preeminent women around the world.
“These days you don’t have to be in a physical space to be inspired.”
The value of networking in all its forms cannot be underestimated. It has become essential to business success. As a result, there has been a proliferation of national, regional and international networks targeting women.
Although businesswomen and -men often network for the same reasons, including extending their client base and contacts, just like communicating, we go about it in very different ways.
Eva Muraya, of Vital Voices Global Partnership, an organization that trains and empowers emerging women leaders and entrepreneurs across the world, says this is proof of the increasing potential of networks to be used as vehicles to enhance knowledge sharing and professional and business growth.
“Additionally online resources such as www.wisdomexchangetv.com have revolutionized information sharing and peer learning by creating a platform through which women trailblazers from Africa can motivate and inspire other women through sharing their stories which are captured on video,” says Muraya, who is also the CEO of Kenya’s Brand Strategy and Design (EA) Ltd.
The traditional old boys’ club of clinching business deals over cognac and cigars is a seldom seen feature in women’s networks – and it is not often that you come across women in these circles.
“There are the structured opportunities. If you, for example, look at the WEF (World Economic Forum)… none of the organizers would be naïve or stupid enough to exclude women. But often it is at the CEO level, the chair level, at the president level, so automatically your numbers are reduced,” says Nwokedi, who is a leader in nuclear energy and infrastructure on the continent.
Nwokedi says the boys’ club is about wealth creation, and women have a lot of catching up to do.
“In order to make a gain you first have to be organized, and that is why we form these women’s organizations, because the first thing they are going to say is, ‘make the business case’. We have to disaggregate the data to see how many engineers there are; how many female engineers there are; how many black female engineers there are; how many young black females there are. You have to drill down. In order for us to say, ‘things have got to change’ we have got to prove why and then we have to develop a program that gets that dividend. It’s a lot of work and men don’t have to do that.”
Networks are especially important for women, who more often than not face inequality in the workplace and at home.
“[Networking] was initially conceptualized according to the American idea, by women who are CEOs; women who are presidents; women who are chairs. Because once you are at the top… it’s extremely lonely. You couldn’t afford to let your guard down in the boardroom or even in your corporation, because that is perceived as weakness when it comes to women. So women then get together to support each other when they are the top of their craft,” says Nwokedi.
According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2010 Women’s Report , women need to do improve the way they network.
The report finds women entrepreneurs and business owners are inclined to have smaller and less diverse networks than their male counterparts. They are also more likely to seek guidance from family members.
“Men’s networks tended to be as large or larger than those of women… to encompass more people in one’s work: entrepreneurial, professional, and market environment… Academic research suggests that entrepreneurs having broad and diverse networks are more likely to have better access to the information and knowledge that is associated with high growth potential and venture performance.”
Although there is recognition that women need to catch up in fully utilising networks, they do use a variety of forums on the continent to connect. These include roundtables, think tanks, seminars, workshops, conferences, LinkedIn, and cocktail events. And of course political parties will always remain an excellent way of establishing contacts.
In South Africa, the IWFSA recognizes the need for mentorship and nurturing. It has a strategic leadership program with the Gordon Institute of Business Science. The year-long course prepares senior women with leadership potential for top posts in their organizations.
The next big network to keep your eye on is the Brics Women’s Initiative. It is being steered by a group of key women, including Nwokedi. It aims to increase women’s participation in Africa as well as in the member countries of Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Although the group recognized at its last summit there was a need for women-owned ventures, the recently formed Brics Business Council tells a very different story. It comprises 25 people, and only two of them are women.
“Because the criteria (is not) a 50/50 representation, there are fewer women…
“It’s not even institutionally that women are excluded; it’s organically that they are excluded. You need to re-engineer the institutional arrangements to make sure women are included,” says Nwokedi. i