Women’s Groups – Embrace the Cliché

I wish we didn’t have to have them.  I fought the notion.  I cringed at the thought.  Cheesey acronyms.  Stale agendas.  Been there, done that speaker topics.  Panelists who sparked déjà vu.  The fact that at this point, well into the second decade in the twenty first century …. Do we really need them?

But, they really, truly, work.  They help.  They make a difference.

The women’s network.

Some of it felt too feminist for me.  I’m not and never was the girl who cries wolf and wants to sit around sharing anger about issues that permeate society far beyond the walls of my firm.  And sometimes I didn’t want to go.  But I have to say, I was always glad when I did.  And most of the time?  There’s wine.

Over the years, some of the best relationships I developed with very senior women at my firm were a direct result of exposure through my firm’s women’s network.  If you have one at your firm, I wholeheartedly urge you to participate and get involved whether you are fresh into your career or 20yrs into it.  I know, we all have busy lives, especially those of you who have to get home to rugrats and relieve the nanny.  But maybe, you could ask her to stay late.  So you could make that cocktail party.  You never know, you may meet a new neighbor.  A former colleague from a previous firm you didn’t know had also relocated.    A young woman who has the exact job you used to have, eight years ago.  A senior woman looking to replace someone on her team who is moving to work in London – you’re the perfect fit.

When I first graduated college, there was no women’s group at Lehman Brothers.  I think it was in either 2004 or 2005 when the inaugural WILL event took place.  And while it was great that women at the firm saw the need & had the idea, that the executives agreed and financed the initiative, and we now had a forum, it wasn’t really helping me, at least not at that point.  I recall thinking a lot of the women who seemed to be very involved a) already knew each other and b) already had very senior jobs.  These were actually not the women who really needed a support system.  They had already perfected the art of networking, they had already had their children, they had already been promoted time and time again.  At this point, in the early days of women’s groups, there was very little in terms of focus & resources on the more “junior” population at the firm.    

Additionally, I had worked through the turmoil and difficult times following 9/11, had graduated from my Analyst program, been promoted to an Associate, and had also completely moved divisions/jobs.  Three years out of college, I found myself on a corporate bond trading desk with zero women on my immediate team.  I had done this largely on my own, without guidance from any mentors or sponsorsAt that stage of my career, I just didn’t have anyone who fit that criteria.  I SO needed that network to have been started three years ago.  

Better late than never.  

I got as involved as I could when the opportunities presented itself, always appreciating when someone invited me to something where I got a bit more exposure and chance to connect with women from different areas.  I’ll never forget getting chosen to attend a “Rising Stars” lunch where senior women selected a junior woman to attend; I was honored to have been chosen.  

A few suggestions for those of you who are as skeptical as I sometimes am about the women’s network:

  • I found that, over the years, as diversity became an even bigger topic and area of focus across Wall Street, when you are a woman who works with all or mostly men, even if you are the junior person on the desk, play that card.  Rarely did they say no if you asked to leave a bit early or miss an afternoon for a women’s event.  They’d roll their eyes, laugh with the guy next to them and ask “why don’t we have a men’s network?”  My favorite response to “when’s the men’s golf outing” was “I thought there was one every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day”.  At the end of the day, most men knew they needed to let you go.
  • If you don’t have a women’s network at your firm, start one.  Even an informal one.  Send an email to a bunch of women you may know, but who don’t necessarily know each other.  Pick a night, invite them to drinks.  I promise you, it will be rewarding.  I did this several times over the years, a few times hand picking women (mostly younger than me who I had mentored in some capacity) who I thought would all enjoy getting to know each other.  I opened up my apartment, had everyone over, and sat back and watched as connections were forged.  Other times we did drinks, or even dinner.  To this day, I still get together with many of these women – both older and younger than me, many having moved on to other firms – but our connection is still going strong.  
  • If you do have a women’s network but you recognize that it seems to be focused on a more senior population at your institution, start a junior version.  It’s a tremendous way to show initiative, get exposure, and have a chance to plan events, a skill that always comes in handy.  Plus, if you are helping put together the calendar for your group, you get to come up with ideas of what you want to see/hear/do … you can’t complain about the agenda if you helped set it.
  • If you have female clients, host female-specific client events.  I couldn’t believe how much fun I had and how much I had in common with 3 female clients who didn’t know each other, but who were all covered by the same salesguy.  I set up a dinner, we spent hours laughing and telling stories about all the men at work… and from then on, became a very close group of friends who planned regular dinners.  And it was paid for by the firm!
  • Sometimes its ok to embrace the female thing.  Golf events are great.  I’m sure plenty of women love going to baseball games or deep sea fishing.  But don’t be afraid to plan an outing to the salon to get mani/pedis or blow-outs, or take a dance or cooking class.  Especially for working moms who may not have time to do these things on their own clocks.  When you can combine business with errands, that’s just smart and efficient.  And again, usually free.
  • Pay it forward.  Give back.  Whatever phrase, if you have reached a level in your career where you can afford to treat a few junior girls out for beers or a Soul-Cycle class, do it.  I think young women early in their careers often feel left out.  But, that’s not necessarily always because they are female; it may just be because they are junior.  Lead by example, and be inclusive, regardless of how senior you may get.  It always helps to remember where you came from.

At the end of the day, is it archaic that women, who statistically make up a greater percentage of college graduates and ~50% of all incoming Wall Street analyst programs have to have a network dedicated to them?  Perhaps.  But trust me when I say, it is worth your time to get involved.  And if you don’t like what programming is being offered?  Volunteer to organize the next event.  The men may try to act condescending, but sometimes I think they were actually a bit jealous.    

Megan Philbin