Women can be quite terrifying in large numbers. I am sure that men can be as well, but I am always slightly intimidated by large groups of women, especially when organised into fighting units.
I have written before about my views on women-only networks and organisations. I believe in women supporting each other in this male-dominated world, and were I a US citizen I would be voting for Hillary for that reason alone, but does such support need to be a formal arrangement?
Many large companies have women’s networks and I am always suspicious that the reason they are encouraged and supported (usually by a male-dominated management) is that they might provide some protection for those companies against the day they receive a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination. Many of these companies are quoted and I am not sure this is a good use of shareholders’ money. Why not just pay higher premiums to insure against lawsuits? Women’s networks seem a bit too PC for my liking – right up there with organic vegetables and Pilates.
This is perhaps a rather jaundiced view, but it is one that I ventured at the 2007 Women’s Forum in Deauville last October. Here were 1,000 participants (mostly women, and so fairly terrifying) debating the social and economic issues of the day. It was like a female-led version of the World Economic Forum, only by the sea in France rather than up a mountain in Switzerland.
Of course I do believe that women need support – it remains harder for a woman to get started and succeed in her career, whether as an employee or an entrepreneur, than for a man. But do we need to institutionalise that support? I run, in effect, a network, in that I have a great many female friends and acquaintances who hold senior positions and run businesses, and I introduce them to each other and encourage them to support each other. That is exactly what men do, after all.
Having said all that, I am a grudging admirer of some organisations, such as Vital Voices, the Washington DC-based not-for-profit body that grandly declares that it “empowers” women. What it actually does is to invest in women around the world, mainly in places a bit further away and a bit more under-resourced than the ones my girlfriends inhabit. Typically, the women that Vital Voices supports are pioneers in economic, political and social advancement in their countries, and it is this type of support that I applaud.
Vital Voices does have a couple of UK-based women on its board, including the redoubtable life peer Mary Goudie.
I have long been a fan, not merely of Goudie, but of her business card, which she had printed the first time she had to work with civil servants. On the front it gives her contact details and proclaims her as a member of the House of Lords. The reverse bears the following instruction: “Those who say it cannot be done ... should not interrupt those who are doing it.” A marvellous sentiment.
Vital Voices was represented at the Women’s Forum in Deauville, as were the 200 or so women who participate in the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, the women-only desert navigation rally held each year in Morocco. As a speaker at the forum, I was met at the Gare du Nord and driven to Deauville by one of them, a very glamorous woman. Another one, this time a lady just retired from a lifetime working at Renault, drove me back a day later. Why did they give up valuable time to come and staff the car service at the Women’s Forum? I was told that not only did they get to attend the sessions for free, but they also made useful contacts with people who subsequently became sponsors.
If sponsorship is a little beyond your means or inclination, I commend to you, female or male, the 2008 calendar produced by the Gazelles. Not only is it in a good cause (to raise money to buy bicycles for Moroccan schoolchildren), but it costs only €20, from www.rallyeaichadesgazelles.com. Best of all, it is gloriously un-PC – Pirelli, eat your heart out. And it won’t terrify anyone.