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The Power of Networks for Women’s Advancement

A version of this post also appeared on LinkedIn.

NYSE Euronext - Judith Rodin
Photo Credit: NYSE Euronext

Yesterday I joined several other women who serve on corporate boards to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange in honor of International Women’s Day. It was a great pleasure, particularly for those of us who remember the days when there were very few women on boards or the trading floor. In fact, there have been more times than I’d like to count that I was the first or the only woman in the boardroom.

“Leaning in” is only part of the prescription—women must also “reach out.”

In the past decade, fortunately, we’ve seen the make-up of boards begin to change. Rarely am I the only woman in the boardroom anymore, but the under-representation of women at the table when major decisions are made is still noticeable and disappointing.

My friend Sheryl Sandberg has done a great deal to bring attention to this gap, but “leaning in” is only part of the prescription—women must also “reach out” and embrace the power of networks, both professional and personal, in their chosen field and outside of it. Men have done this for centuries. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago—just a little more than 20 years, only—that I had to be brought in a back entrance of a Yale-related club called Mory’s to interview for a faculty job in the psychology department because its membership was men-only.

Today, in the United States, there are few rooms women can’t walk into—now the trick is working those rooms effectively and building the networks that not only will support a woman’s individual career advancement, but keep her grounded, connected, and self-aware as she climbs the ladder.

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of many networks over my career, and I count corporate boards as some of the most valuable because they exposed me to a range of perspectives that have challenged my beliefs and enhanced my own leadership. But they certainly aren’t the only networks that are worthwhile. Whether they are alumni networks or professional associations, or smaller, more intimate dinners built around shared interests, the best networks energize you, expose you to people of different backgrounds and ideologies, and, especially in this day and age, are global in terms of the people they include and the ideas and knowledge you share.

“Mentors are different from role-models. Role-models demonstrate; mentors share and cultivate.”

Networks should be used in service to finding, rather than replacing, connections created through mentoring. This is not a women’s issue, though it is particularly important that women have at least one mentor they can turn to for advice but also who feel invested in their development. Mentors are different from role-models. Role-models demonstrate; mentors share and cultivate. You might learn from watching role-models; but through mentorship, you are caught up in a process of mutual learning.

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to mentor remarkable people, at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and at the Rockefeller Foundation—men and women both. And I have been equally transformed by those relationships, if not more, than those I’ve mentored. Lessons I then take back to my networks—and so it’s a self-enriching cycle.

Now as the president of a global foundation, I have been able to see the power of networks for women’s advancement on a much larger scale. One example is in South Africa, where we supported the Impact Sourcing Academy, which provides zero-interest, microfinance loans to women to get additional training needed for good-paying digital jobs. There is a strong mentoring component too, which allows students to make connections with women who hold the kinds of jobs they pursuing.

But we do more than just fund projects and build networks that are overtly focused on women’s well-being and advancement. To truly create change, we must fix the systems that keep women all over the world from accessing opportunity, property rights, legal representation, and health care. That’s why we at The Rockefeller Foundation look at every initiative with a gender lens to uncover the social norms, the gender roles, the biases that aren’t always explicit but that underpin, or hinder, progress. For example, we know that in almost every part of the world, but particularly in low-income regions, women are the last to seek out preventative health care because they are most focused on getting care for their families.

This kind of thinking, quite frankly, often doesn’t happen without the rise of women through the ranks of leadership, and I thought of them during my visit to Wall Street. The ringing of a bell doesn’t mean the fight for women’s equality is over and won. We’re ready for the next round.

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