How women’s networks can join forces for the greater good

Diversity Female Working At Bistro. Women Meeting In Cafe. Group Of Four Smiling Girls Sitting In Restaurant And Discussing. Freelance As Lifestyle.

By Professor Hanneke Takkenberg (ECWO Executive Director) and Kirsten Kardijk (ECWO Assistant Researcher)

Recent research we undertook for Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) revealed that women’s organisations in the Netherlands work alone, despite the fact that collaboration would be desirable in order to achieve the common goals of equal representation, equal remuneration, social safety, and a sense of belonging.

The absence of collaboration had become evident to us before we did the research – most potently when we organised, with several partners on campus, an Edit-a-Thon for the 2022 International Women’s Day to improve the number of women’s biographies on Wikipedia. We noticed that other women’s organisations and networks were running similar programmes on the same day. This prompted us to consider the potential impact of a collaborative Edit-a-Thon. Wouldn’t it be great if we collaborated more?

In a follow-up research project, in which we investigated the current offer and the degree of collaboration of overarching women’s organisations and networks in the Netherlands, we noticed a simultaneous process of desiring yet resisting collaboration with other women’s organisations and networks. Indeed, despite voicing similar goals, and calling for similar actions from government, employers and wider society to help improve inclusivity for women, and despite nurturing a collective of connected individuals, the research showed that very few were able to practice what they preached at a higher level by connecting with other similar organisations.

According to the organisations and networks themselves, barriers to collaboration included a lack of transparency amongst them as well as the assumption that they are too different from one another to really effectively join forces. The idea that these organisations and networks are too different from one another could be understood in the fact that they indeed operate in various industries, and therefore have differing perspectives, expertise, assets or facilities. However, our research clearly showed that, despite these organisational differences, there were fundamental similarities that were located in the broader social realm, the shared objective of creating more gender balance, gender equity and gender equality. Additionally, noting and underlining that we are different, in this case, makes us forget these differences can be complementary. A higher level of diversity in a network means a wider range of resources, as well as viewpoints and experiences, are available leading to greater benefits of collaboration.

A further barrier could be due to competition. Whilst no evidence of this was recorded by our 2022 research survey, a previous study conducted by ECWO’s founder, the late Professor Dianne Bevelander, suggested that women prefer not to work with other women in situations that require trust. In fact, it was this study that was among the seeds for the establishment of ECWO in 2014, one of the first research, education and advocacy centres at a business school that focused on positively impacting gender equality globally. Although we are now expanding to focus on inclusivity more broadly, ECWO was built on a vision of empowering and connecting communities of women as change agents, able to drive their own careers and play a meaningful role in reaching gender equality in their organisations and society.

Arising out of ECWO’s work and the research we conducted, we can see that women’s networks and organisations have a common concern and share a similar goal but there is a distance to go for the true impact of this to be felt in society. A powerful way of stimulating women’s networks to join forces is to create a Community of Practice – essentially creating a platform for networks that share either a common concern, a set of problems, an interest in a topic, or all three. We believe that a Community of Practice is an excellent way to keep a sustained conversation going between networks and share wisdom and much more, as a way of identifying and moving towards more formal collaborative opportunities. A CoP does not serve an educational function but instead is a space for sharing best practices and challenges. It takes networks and organisations beyond creating the best environment possible for their own members and looks past barriers towards societal change and the positive impact the collective can have on society.

Is it possible to create such a CoP? We believe that it is but it requires balancing a commercial imperative that a network or organisation might have with a true and unwavering commitment to societal change. This means going beyond simply lip service and learning to share and connect in a community of networks where all belong and are focused on achieving a world defined by inclusive prosperity. In fact, we have already started working in this area with our Women Leading events, starting last year with Women Leading the Energy Transition. A partnership with 75inQ, it aimed to engage, inspire and connect women who are contributing to the energy transition – and brought together two key SDGs, something that we are committed to doing in an ongoing way. In 2023 we are working on a similar event around Sustainable Fashion and we can share that working collaboratively with different networks, organisations and individual women is inspiring, stimulating, and a lot of fun. And that’s what we would like to leave you with: ECWO is located at a university and we pursue serious subjects (including social safety), always backed by our own or applied research. But if you happen by our office on the Erasmus University campus in Rotterdam, you’re likely to hear laughter, fierce debate, and the sound of a team having fun while, hopefully, having an impact.

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