Why is women-only networking still a thing?

There’s been a surge in female-focused clubs, co-working spaces and events, but what do women in the creative industry actually get out of it, and is it fixing anything?

If you’re a woman in the creative industry, you’ve probably got a few things on your mind. It could be the lack of pay parity, or the absence of other women at senior roles. You might be worried about how you’re going to juggle motherhood and your career. Or, you might be wondering where your next freelance job is coming from, and what you should be charging for it.

Whatever it is, a wave of women-focused networks and spaces have emerged, designed to support women in creative careers. These range from physical places such as co-working club The Wing or The Female Quotient’s Girls’ Lounge – now known as the Equality Lounge – through to networks such as Marguerite or Ladies, Wine & Design.

For Shelley Zalis, founder of The Female Quotient, these spaces are about the possibilities that arise when women are brought together. “We truly believe in the power of the pack,” she told CR. “We always say a woman alone has power, collectively we have impact. When you think about a space where the minority acts and feels like the majority, that’s when women find their voice and confidence. There’s no apology or permission for being who we are.”

“We talk about advancing women, advancing equality, but you can’t move the needle forward if we don’t create the magnifying lens on women doing remarkable things,” she adds.

Top image: By VagonPhoto via Shutterstock; Equality Lounge speakers at Cannes Lions

The Female Quotient runs Equality Lounges at events around the world – including SXSW, Adobe Summit and Cannes Lions – hosting female speakers as well as creating a place for women to network. Zalis describes them as a response to the ‘boys club’ mentality in the industry, and believes they tap into women’s innate need to form relationships – as opposed to just swapping business cards. They’re designed to be as equitable as possible, which means no-one wears any kind of identifying badge, and there’s no membership fee.

Things are similarly democratic at Ladies, Wine & Design – a worldwide non-profit organisation set up by Jessica Walsh, which brings women, non-binary, agender and gender non-conforming people together in regular meetups. Events are largely free to attend, and range from portfolio reviews and talks, to social get-togethers.

Fee Sheal, the leader of LWD’s Edinburgh chapter, describes the events as a “safe space” for women. “It’s the kind of place where you’re going to go and not be judged if you’re asking silly questions, or if you’ve got questions about money that are maybe a bit uncomfortable to ask men, who are likely to be on more money than you,” she told CR.

Sheal has been running these events for four years, and says she’s seen women use the meetups for all kinds of things – from making friends with people in the same industry, to networking, landing jobs or finding contacts. In recent years, she’s says it’s increasingly found its role as a place for women to seek advice and support from one another in a more relaxed environment, with attendees drawing on each other’s experience on how to go freelance, what to charge, and so on.

“Until we get to the point where there’s a more balanced playing field, we need to have that extra bit of support and that extra push from a community of other women who have been there, done that, and understand what you’re going through,” she explains.

Photos from a Ladies, Wine & Design Edinburgh event, shot by Ellie Morag

Inevitably, men have asked if they can join some of the LWD events, but Sheal says she’s decided to keep it focused only on those that identify as female – particularly after she put the idea to the network, and received a blanket no in response.

Questions around whether men are being shut out of the conversation aren’t the only criticism female-focused networks face, and the Equality Lounge has also had to answer to challenges. In 2017, when it was still known as the Girls’ Lounge, DigiDay questioned just how helpful a space could be if it was addressing gender inequality, all while peddling hair, makeup and styling tips.

“What message is sent by an event that refers to women as ‘girls’ and reinforces stereotypes about them that the ad industry itself has helped foster?” the mag wondered. Zalis stood up for it, refusing to apologise for something that she believed helped women feel good about themselves.

Similar issues have been raised around coworking club The Wing, which has raised eyebrows with its Insta-friendly take on feminism – which some believe prioritises aesthetics over action. Its membership fees – which start at £170 for its London outpost – have also got people wondering just how much good a woman-only space can do when it’s only open to a certain part of society that can afford it.

It’s something Danielle Thom, Elise Bell and Imogen West-Knights are trying to combat with their network The Thing, which is aimed at women and non-binary people in the creative industries. It’s free to attend – although its founders are considering a non-mandatory donation to allow them to host, and pay, speakers – and designed as a place for members to meet, network and vent, all without some of the negative aspects of other, similar, setups.

“If you want to create a women-only or women-friendly space that caters to a certain need or demographic, then ok, but it’s when that network is presented as a major step forward – as something that’s promoting equality and moving women forward in the creative industries, then to me that doesn’t scan,” says Thom, who’s also Curator of Making at the Museum of London. “It’s not about denigrating these networks or their purpose, but we see a bit of a disconnect between what they actually do and what they say they do.”

Image from Ladies, Wine & Design Edinburgh event, shot by Ellie Morag

The Thing is still in its early stages, but Thom says its first event, hosted at the start of the year, was a success, giving women a place to socialise and make connections that turned into meaningful meetups, rather than just pointless email exchanges or chit chat.

Perhaps the main quality that distinguishes The Thing is its collaborative approach, which is seeing the founders work together with members to understand what they actually need. For example, they’ve had requests from mums, or women about to go on maternity leave, who are keen to have events they can actually attend.

“If you want to facilitate women being part of a network that means all women, and not just the ones who are 26 and able to go out drinking after work, because not everyone’s in that position,” says Thom. “That’s something we’re planning – some kind of afternoon networking event, not exclusively, but specifically welcoming women who want to bring their kids along or go on maternity leave and keep connected professionally. We’re taking all this feedback on board and wanting to find out what we can do for women and what we can create that doesn’t exist so far.”

“Obviously what we do with this network is structured around the idea of supporting women and femme people, but that is not the only axis of exclusion that exists,” she adds. “We are working as hard as we can to be intersectional in our approaches and practices, because there are other forms of exclusion and inequality.”

Ladies, Wine & Design Edinburgh event, shot by Ellie Morag

And amongst all the debates about just how open and inclusive women’s spaces are, there’s an even bigger question – is it actually doing any good? Based on stories from networks like The Thing and Ladies, Wine & Design, these kinds of free-to-attend events are a much-needed source of support for individual women. However, when it comes to making a difference on a bigger scale – for example, getting more women into senior positions – it’s not clear if they’re getting us any nearer equality.

For Thom, changes need to happen on a much broader economic scale if were going to see real, tangible change, but that doesn’t mean female-focused networks aren’t playing their role.

“What we can do is give people a way to advocate for themselves on an individual level,” she says. “To improve their own individual networks and give them resources and spaces for communicating and thinking. We’re not going to change the world, we’re not going to overthrow the system and we’ve always been upfront about that. What we are trying to do is give women the resources to navigate the system as it is without capitulating completely to what it is. It’s working with the limitations that exist, and not accepting or condoning them, but finding the way we can work against existing structures and be pragmatic about it.”

thefemalequotient.com; ladieswinedesign.com; tinyletter.com/thething