Boston — One morning in May, Mimi Truslow, along with about 30 other women, sat cramped around a huge square table in a rather small, darkly paneled room at the downtown Harvard Club here. There were plenty of other areas to gather in, large rooms with terrific picture windows and luxurious rugs, but someone had goofed and set up coffee and Danish in the wrong place.
No matter. The conversation still flowed, the business cards still changed hands, and the women still listened with interest when a guest speaker talked about exporting from New England. After the talk, Ms. Truslow spent quite a while with the speaker. ''Exporting is somewhat of a long shot (for my company), '' she explained later, ''but I thought I should at least investigate it.''
The women gathering that morning had one thing in common. They were all members of the Simmons Exchange, alumnae who attended the Graduate School of Management at Simmons College, a women's college in Boston's Back Bay. The group meets at the Harvard Club regularly to share breakfeast, listen to speakers, and then ''network'' - develop sales leads, share job tips, share creative ideas, or simply catch up on friends and business trends.
The Simmons Exchange, just three years old, is only one of thousands of women's networks that have formed in the United States. In 1980 the count was 1, 400. Today, it's at least 5,000 and growing strong, says Carol Kleiman, associate financial editor of the Chicago Tribune and author of ''Women's Networks'' (Ballantine Books Inc., New York, $2.95).
As a term, ''networking'' is probably as overused as ''relationships.'' But the tiresome label isn't slowing down the popularity of the concept.
Ms. Kleiman says the recession and lack of jobs intensified the growth of women's networks. But the basic reason, she says, is simple: ''Women are stuck.'' They are stuck in middle management positions and at subpar wages. Women still earn only 62 cents for every dollar men earn. And, as a Fortune cover story recently pointed out, there is only one woman chief executive officer in their list of Fortune 500 companies. On their highest level, networks are a way for women to band together for influence and clout in politics, business, and the professions. On a more immediate level, they lead to jobs, career development, business expansion, support, and education.
Adrienne Hall belongs to the National Women's Forum, a rather low-profile network with high-power members who have been firsts in their fields. The forum has a broad-based purpose: the empowerment of women. Right now, Mrs. Hall is in the middle of starting new chapters across the country, including 10 cities.
''Ten would have been very difficult a few years ago, but 10 is not so difficult today,'' she says from her Los Angeles home, where she is giving a 7 a.m. phone interview while riding her exercise bike. (As vice-chairman of the board of Eisaman, Johns & Laws Advertising Inc., she is a busy woman).
''Today you are finding more women who are ready to take on this kind of involvement,'' she explains. ''I think for some there have been experiences, whether political or corporate, where women look at what happens in promotions, and if they look at the top, they can't find the women there. They've been moving such a long time now and they're still not there.''
It's a mistake to believe that women now have it as good as men in the workplace and that they don't need women's networks, says Barbara Gutek, an associate professor of psychology and management at the Claremont Graduate School in California. ''I've run across young women who have been told that this is a wonderful time to be a woman, that women can walk in now and get all the good jobs and that men have a harder time. Some of them believe that, and I think it's very naive, very,'' she says.
What are women's networks supposed to accomplish? Do they work? Mrs. Klieman's answer is that ''you have to know it's working or these women wouldn't be doing it. We're busy, we have families, and it's expensive.'' The Chicago Network which she belongs to, for instance, has an annual membership fee of $275 .
As far as accomplishments go, they range up and down the board, from helping newcomers with the job market to high-power deal making to getting as many women in positions of power as possible. Networks also cover a wide range of members: There are networks of women in the same profession, women business owners, alumnae networks, athletic networks, general purpose networks, and political networks. Some women feel that networking is evolving, that it's moving away from the group-support and job-search purpose and getting more action oriented.
''I think that the first wave of feminisim is over,'' says Nancy Ford, ''and the first wave of networking is over. . . . The women who first got in it have grown beyond it. It finally is boring to them to keep reliving the same old experience with other women.'' Public relations director of the University of South Florida Medical Center, Ms. Ford is also chairman of the Florida Women's Network, a statewide exclusive group of women influential in their communities.
Though the women in the network use it for their own professional gain (for instance, Ms. Ford has used her connections pipeline to gauge antivivisectionist activity in the state), another goal is to help women as a whole by moving successful women into top positions. These can then lend a hand to others moving up the ladder. The network already has a lot of clout in politics, she says, and is soon going to start in on corporate boards.
She doesn't, however, decry ''beginners' networks.'' Women need them, she says, but she notices that more and more networks are either limited to fairly prominent women or they are for support and education.
In Boston, for instance, Nancy Korman runs a ''select'' network that's strictly for dealing. There are no bylaws, no minutes, no stated purpose, no lectures. The women meet regularly over lunch and get right down to business. ''If I wanted to go to a lecture, I could go to Harvard or MIT,'' Ms. Korman says. ''It's simply you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.''
Yet another organization here, Women of Boston, takes a different approach. Members run all ages and all stages of career development. ''I would say the support is a very strong part of it. The tendency is to apologize for that, but it's very important,'' explains Adrienne Dorfman, president of the network. Job listings are also basic, along with guest speakers. She admits though, that it's difficult to run a multilevel organization like this and still satisfy everyone.
Lately, however, there have been a lot of pot-shots taken at women's networks. An April article in Savvy magazine points out that women are abusing their string of connections. Some women complain that networks have become one huge job-search machine and that women using networks can be abrupt, overly demanding, and rude. ''The concept that because you're a woman and in a network that you should be on the receiving end of all kinds of calls and things that exhaust you is not my idea of fun,'' emphasizes Patricia Cloherty, a partner in the New York venture capital firm, Tessler & Cloherty Inc. Ms. Cloherty was the first president of the Committee of 200, a network of women entrepreneurs with revenues of over $5 million a year and line managers with authority over budgets of at least $20 mallion.
Critics also say that networks just for women are somewhat self-defeating. If women are just circulating among themselves, how can they have any influence?
Ms. Truslow, the Simmons graduate, says that ''the idea of networking is still new enough so that making deals via women you know is not yet always possible. But women you know are contacts to the men who can make the deals.'' And she adds, most women don't belong to just their single-sex network, but have other connections and other networks. Other women say there are now enough of them in high positions to make networking more effective.