Women’s groups – why we need them

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I’ve had a couple conversations in recent days regarding the existence of women’s groups. They are everywhere these days – I even belong to several of them. I am on the steering committee for WINGs, Women Investing in the Next Generation, a circle of women giving to the United Way at recognized levels. I am on the board of directors of the Zonta Club of Cincinnati, a branch of Zonta International, a global women’s philanthropy organization. I am a member of the women’s affinity group here at my work. Clearly, I have bought into the idea.

Let me first discuss two objections to these groups. I’ve been presented with many of them, and I want to give them some space and some thought. All of these were presented to me by rational, kind-hearted individuals, so I believe they deserve some exploration.

First, the claim is that these groups are exclusive, and not inclusive. If what we really want is an inclusive society or workplace, why would we support an exclusive organization? On the absolute top surface of it, I understand why the people putting forth this objection have this issue. We are working for an inclusive society/workplace, and these are exclusive organizations. There are important reasons why we have to do this, and we’ll get to these reasons later.

Second, I’ve heard more than once, as I head out to one of my meetings, “You headed to one of your man-hater clubs?” Most of the time this is said in jest, but as we all know, there is always a kernel of truth in every joke. For some reason, there is an expectation that if we have an all-women’s group the focus must on our hatred of men. How surprised would they be to hear that the subject never, ever comes up.

So to answer these objections, why do we need these groups?

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is a story that I am sure has been replayed in just about every home with children in America. It happened in my childhood home – and I was the culprit. Frustrated with my Mom for making me get dressed and go out on a picnic that did not cater to my 9-year-old desire to stay inside and read (yes, I was one of those kinds of kids), just to celebrate Father’s Day, I screamed, “Why do we have to celebrate Father’s Day? We don’t ever celebrate Kid’s day!” My Mom looked at me and said, quite sternly, “Every single day is Kids day! We have to pick one special day just to remember how much we love our Dads.”

In the simplest terms, this is exactly why we need women’s groups. In our society today, and in many of our workplaces, every committee is a men’s committee, every group is a men’s group. Just as “kids days” don’t exclude adults, so too do most “men’s” groups not specifically exclude women. However, because the default is men, we must do something special, something separate to recognize women.

It goes beyond recognition, however. Women need a place to feel safe, to explore the unique experience of being female in the corporate world. There are many academic studies out there that show that there is a dearth of women in leadership roles. This is not because women do not wish to hold leadership positions, but rather it is due to a complex web of organizational factors that hold women back.

Let me give a rather simple example. A young woman is at a company function. A man, senior to her in the company, says “You look fantastic!” as he stares directly into her cleavage. Now, she has a choice. Does she report this or not? I discussed this precise predicament in a previous post. But now lets say that she is part of a women’s employee resource group. She now has access to resources. She has an outlet to explore her options, and get feedback on possible actions. She understands that she isn’t alone, that it wasn’t her fault, and that she has other women backing her up, and helping her through.

I truly believe that most men and women understand the need for women’s groups, but I also know there are some men out there, and possibly women, who need some additional help understanding why these organizations continue to exist and thrive. I, for one, am grateful for the opportunities these organizations have given me to invest in my community, my workplace, and myself. I will continue to participate and support these organizations and the incredible women that are involved in them.

Do you have any experiences you would share about being involved in a women’s group? How have they helped you?

As always, keep it positive and smile! Happy Monday!

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