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Networks for the upscale businesswoman gain increasing credibility in US

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 1984


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.

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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 .