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Do We Need a Good Old Girls Network?

We all know about the good old boys network. The guys take off work and play golf on Friday afternoons. They close deals over scotch. They hire other men just so they can discuss the latest NFL trade at the office.

Okay, so I might be stereotyping—and exaggerating—a bit. But only a bit. My question: should we build a good old girls network? If we complain so much about the good old boys network, perhaps we shouldn’t promote a women-only club. Maybe business should be gender-neutral.

Well, yeah, sure, in la-la land that would be perfect, but here in the real world, there is a good old boys network, and we women should help each other out too! For one thing, most of us don’t have time to play golf or drink scotch. If we leave work early, we are likely headed to a ballet recital or some other family obligation. Like it or not, we have different lives than men, and we need our own brand of support.

I was reminded of this during the National Association of Women Business Owners’ annual conference. I attended as a guest on the first day, met some wonderful businesswomen, and heard Donna Orender, the president of the WNBA, speak.

I was thrilled to eat lunch with the owners of four very different businesses. One has an executive search firm, one heads a CPA firm, one owns a trucking company (yeah, trucking, isn’t that cool?), and one is a financial planner. We chatted over salad and a chicken entree about a variety of topics—why it’s smart to get a payroll service for one’s company, how to find a good nanny, public versus private school, why diversity is good for business, etc. Somehow, I have never enjoyed quite that mix of conversation with a table full of men!

Around the time we dug into strawberry shortcake, Orender was introduced. She talked about working in a male-dominated environment (she was an executive with the PGA Tour for seventeen years). “It was always me and the guys,” she said. Nobody understood why she would leave her great job to run a women’s basketball league. She explained to her fellow PGA executives, many of whom had daughters, that she was making the change for their girls. And for her own sons. She wants the next generation to grow up with strong women as role models.

Orender quoted Madeleine Albright as saying, “There is a place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

So let’s just say that we all agree that women in business—and life— should be helping each other out. Exactly what does that mean? Does it mean that women supervisors hire other women as often as we can? That when it comes time to employ an attorney or financial planner or dentist, we only consider female candidates? That we make time to mentor young women in our professions?

Recently, I interviewed Carol Tome, the CFO of Home Depot, for My Mentor: Home Depot CFO Talks About the Women Who Inspired Her. I asked her if it was important for women to mentor other women and she said yes, that’s why she started a group at Home Depot called the Velvet Hammers.

I also know two advertising executives in Atlanta, Margaret Gearing and Susan Frost, who recently struck out on their own. On several occasions, they have told me about the informal network of women who advised them on all things entrepreneurial, including how to negotiate for office space.

Years ago, long before I started working at DivineCaroline, I had the good fortune of eating lunch with Gail Evans, a former Turner Broadcasting executive and the author of a couple of books about women in the workplace. In her book, She Wins, You Win, Evans argues the following point: every time a woman succeeds in business, every other woman’s chance of succeeding increases. Every time a woman fails in business, every other woman’s chance of failing increases.

Evans encourages women to work as a team.

Back at the NAWBO conference, Orender told the audience, “There is the power in this room to change the world.” Indeed, there was a positive energy in that room. Perhaps the vibe of the good old girls network?

Though the conference was packed with business owners from across the country, I had the lucky accident of sitting with a group from Atlanta, where I also live. I plan to learn more about the local chapter, which has about one hundred members. The idea of knowing that many women savvy and brave enough to own their own businesses is exciting.

As I got up to the leave the table, the owner of the executive search firm said, “Come see us.”

“I will,” I told her.

What do you think? Do women owe it to each other to play as a team, and exactly what does that mean in practical terms?