After all, networking over shoe shopping at a Manhattan boutique is no different for women than playing golf and sharing cigars after a steak dinner is for men. For the 53 shoppers who attended a "shoe event" sponsored by law firm Bryan Cave LLP on a recent Tuesday evening -- all of them female lawyers and their female corporate clients or friends -- getting to know one another while browsing designer shoes was a refreshing change from being the lone woman at a client dinner or sports event.
"The shoes were an icebreaker for starting conversations," says Elizabeth DaSilva, managing director, Global Trust Services, Americas at Bank of New York. She mulled a pair of high-heeled evening pumps but quickly turned her attention to the other shoppers. "It was the first opportunity I'd had to talk to lawyers my firm uses about something other than an immediate work assignment," adds Ms. DaSilva. She didn't buy any shoes but found the shopping and dinner after at a Turkish restaurant relaxing, and says she came away feeling more comfortable with attorneys from Bryan Cave and with names of other executives for her contact list.
Such women-only networking events are proliferating at law firms and an array of other companies, including Ernst & Young LLP, Merrill Lynch & Co. and General Electric Co. There are spa retreats, conferences at resorts, evenings at art galleries and cooking demonstrations, all organized by women who want to network and socialize with clients in their own way -- at least some of the time.
The top brass at such companies support the events for several reasons, most notably, they help to boost the bottom line. "We're in a relationship business, and we have to constantly think of new and different ways to spend time with clients -- so when ideas pop up that make sense, we do them," says Dennis Fleischmann, managing partner of Bryan Cave's New York office.
Still, holding women-only networking events raises some complicated issues. Are these single-sex events just as exclusionary as the traditional spectator sports events and steak-and-cigar dinners have been for men? What about women who have male clients and vice versa?
Some male executives think ambitious women would be wiser to learn to play golf -- still a primary way men in business socialize and lay the groundwork for deal making. And some women are ambivalent about women-only events that may cause them to be viewed as "frivolous." But a growing chorus is saying there's nothing wrong with recognizing that women have different tastes and different interests. Besides, after years of being subtly and not-so subtly excluded from male gatherings, women say they want their own space.
"Even if women hold 50% or 75% of top jobs, we'll still want to do some things on our own -- and prefer some activities more than others," says Billie Williamson, Americas director of flexibility and gender equity strategy at Ernst & Young. "At vice president and higher levels, women speak a sort of shorthand and feel an immediate bond around challenges we've faced," including finding mentors and juggling careers and families, adds Ms. Williamson, one of four women on Ernst & Young's 20-person Americas executive board.
Women-only events also are getting a boost from business clients, who increasingly want to do business with firms that have diverse leadership. About 500 corporations have signed a document called the Call to Action, initiated by Sara Lee Corp.'s general counsel four years ago, agreeing to work only with law firms that have "consistently taken action" to increase the number of women and minority lawyers they hire and retain. "When your clients are asking, 'Where are the women and minorities in your pipeline?' there's a lot of impetus to make sure they get help networking in whatever way they feel comfortable" so they can bring in new business and advance, says Susan Saltonstall Duncan, president of RainMaking Oasis in Madison, Conn., which advises companies on business development.
Not that everyone supports women-only events, she notes. "There are men who wonder, 'Why do women, who've said they want to be equal, want to separate?' And there are women who think their male peers will think poorly of them if they spend time with women -- or who've advanced on their own and don't want to turn around and help other women," says Ms. Duncan. But "these resisters are in the minority and they aren't going to be in the game for long," she maintains.
It's hard to be a naysayer, after all, when your CEO supports women-only events. That's the case at Ernst & Young, where CEO James Turley speaks at women's leadership conference, says Ms. Williamson. To encourage mentoring among women, Ernst &Young plans a CEO Summit in June, to which it will invite a score of Fortune 1000 CEOs and their top-ranked women. Each of these senior women will be asked to bring her protigi, and they'll spend the afternoon together in an all-women's session.
The steps that go into successful networking are the same for women and men. When she meets a woman who is a prospective client -- at a women-only event or elsewhere -- Ms. Williamson says she "keeps in touch, continues to ask how things are going with their business and at some point they may say they are looking for help with something." If it's something E&Y can do, she asks, "Will you consider us, and let me introduce you to our specialist in this area -- who is often a man," she notes.
Most women-only events are geared to an elite group of top-ranked women. In May, General Electric will hold its fifth conference for about 50 senior women and 150 women customers at its Crotonville, N.Y., training center. Keynote speakers this year will include Karen Hughes, President Bush's adviser, and eBay CEO Meg Whitman. "This isn't about being a woman in business, it's about being a businessperson," says Susan Peters, GE's vice president of executive development.
So why limit it to women? Ms. Peters says the conference -- which GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt addresses -- is "inspirational" because attendees get to meet other women who have accomplished a lot and learn from one another. The gathering also helps "cement relationships" with some major customers, including the growing number of female executives at retailers, health-care and other companies that buy GE products, Ms. Peters adds.
Women-only networking events take different forms. Laura Zwak DeMare, a managing director in Merrill Lynch's global markets and investment banking group, last year went rock climbing in Jackson Hole, Wyo. She was one of about 50 women attending a four-day, all-women's conference she helped to organize with other female executives in her group. "I was terrified -- and would have much preferred to go hiking" after panel discussions about hedge funds and other investment topics, she says, "but I did what my clients wanted." None of them had ever climbed before, and during the three hours they spent harnessed together, "staring at and tackling a mountain, we got to know each other very well and in a way that couldn't have happened at a spa where we'd each be getting our own facials," says Ms. Zwak DeMare.
"Not everything we do together has to be highbrow -- but it's important that women in business and the professions support one another," says Corinne Kevorkian, president and general manager of the interior design group of F. Schumacher, who attended Bryan Cave's shoe event. She first met the partner who invited her 17 years ago in a clothing store "where we were fighting over the same maternity dress," she recalls.
The women partners at the firm -- who number 56 compared with 264 men -- are planning a variety of other events for female clients and prospective clients and for their female associates to give them opportunities to network. Male partners are networking in new ways, too. One hatched the idea of a poker tournament that has become an annual event for men and women, and family events are being planned that will take place on weekends at a zoo or circus. The firm hasn't held any minority-only events but participated this month in a meeting of the Minority Corporate Council Association, an advocacy group for minority attorneys.
"Some people might wonder, 'What does this have to do with law?' but we work long hours with clients on deals and litigation and everything goes a lot smoother when you know the people you're working with," says Hope Goldstein, a Bryan Cave partner.
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