Professional women’s groups: whingers or winners?

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Are we really working together for a greater good or just having a bitch and moan?

At a recent gathering of colleagues, we were discussing the upcoming meeting of a women in surgery craft group. A few said they would be attending, some could not but one voice said something I wasn’t exactly expecting. A similarly aged female colleague said ‘I never go. It’s just a room full of whinging women’.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone say this and certainly not the first woman I’ve heard say this. I have to be honest, it always shocks me a little. Although my surgical workplace remains a male-dominated field, some women have better experiences than others, some a lot worse. However, using the term whinging implies that those bad experiences are being blown out of proportion or imagined.

The bold statement that implied women’s craft groups are nothing more than a group vent made me think, are they really relevant or are we just whinging?

Surgery is not alone in the presence of female-orientated craft groups. Virtually all professions where men have traditionally held those positions have one or more. Women in Surgery, Women in Media, Women in Engineering, Women in STEM, Women in Law,Women in Aviation and even the defence force has a section dedicated to encouraging women into their ranks. On numbers alone, you would have to imagine that these organisations must exist for a reason and do function in a positive manner.

In these diverse fields, women are particularly underrepresented, especially at the higher echelons. Women make up around 10% of surgeons and in a very public investigations, around half of women in the field reported some form of bullying. Others reported discrimination and sexual harassment. Only three women have been appointed to the Supreme Court, loss of women in STEM during their 30’s and 40’s sees them underrepresented at higher academic appointments and across the board, difficulties with breastfeeding, parental leave or career progression are common.

Strength in numbers is so useful to women who may want guidance or mentoring. It is great to be validated by someone else in a similar position that the problems or successes you experience are not just limited to you. You are not alone. Women’s professional groups have the ability to share advice and offer support. At the risk of sounding a little but of a hippy, at the very least, within these groups a safe space can exist to share some of the not-so-good times.

They can explain how they manage child care with work, or how to make a workplace breastfeeding friendly. They can share advice on how to break the good old glass ceiling and support, mentor and facilitate the advancement of women through their ranks. Personally, I think they are an excellent resource to network, mentor, support and even socialise.

Women’s professional groups do have some distinct advantages for their members. This includes locating a mentor that the mentee can identify with, providing both guidance and inspiration in navigating the workplace. When used appropriately, this can be of great advantage in an increasingly competitive workplace where connections matter. These groups often advise overseeing professional bodies on matters that effect everyone including workforce diversity or flexible working hours and leave policies. Whether you be male or female, member or not, a lot of positive improvements in the workplace have come as a direct result of the influence of professional women’s groups.

That’s not to say that these groups sometimes underperform. Especially in workplaces where gender equality is not as advanced, these meetings can indeed have a tendency to become all about venting the problems we all encounter. In addition, just by existing or having a large group, that in itself won’t change systems weaknesses or unconscious biases. Women’s professional groups also have to develop achievable action plans that can actually perform at work.

Professional women are also very adept at keeping their heads down, so as not to create any trouble that might hamper their career. Associating yourself with your women’s section may wrongly identify you as a feminist, troublemaker or ‘humourless bitch’. Regardless of the fact that we have every right to have our concerns heard and changes made. Nobody wants to be seen as a troublemaker and troublemakers are at risk of not being employed or looked over for promotions. Whether it is true or just, women’s professional groups can indeed seem a little scary to those of us who are just trying to survive.

That being said, I don’t think that we should stop voicing our concerns. Perhaps a meeting of women in surgery or engineering or any other group is full of ‘whinging’ because we have along way to go. It may be a sign of disempowerment of women as individuals at work, in society or as a group as a whole.

I don’t buy into the philosophy that we should support other women, at all costs. The saying ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women’ is just another way to exclude someone who may have a different opinion. We should support each other and not pull the ladder up behind us, however, disagreeing and having the tough conversations will only improve things for women. Nodding along with whatever is said, including the existence of women’s groups, can lead to us missing the important and uncomfortable topics that need attention. However, blanket labelling of feminists and women’s groups as ‘whingers’ belittles the experiences that some women have had at work.

I strongly believe it is important that these groups exist and continue to undertake the excellent work that they do, not just for women or its members, but for our entire workforce. A diverse workforce is without a doubt, a more efficient and productive workforce. Instead of choosing our doctors, lawyers or pilots from a proportion of the population, we get to pick them from the whole population. Imagine the talent we could discover!

It is also important that women’s professional associations do not become echo chambers of professional women listing the vast number of problems faced by them in the workplace. To be honest, I don’t think many just do that. They have absolutely been positive vehicles for change, not just for women but for entire professions. Continuing to use our collective voices, women’s professional groups can lead the way to create workplaces of the future that are inclusive, productive and successful.

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