Networking: Fast movers use club class: Men make contacts and win promotions in the pub and on the links while women hit their heads against the 'invisible ceiling'

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THERE are still very few female senior managers, despite initiatives such as Opportunity 2000 that aim to put women into top positions. So what is the missing ingredient that will improve women's professional prospects?

It is increasingly being realised that the 'clubbiness' of men - in the pub after work, at the golf club, at the company cricket match - is a serious factor conspiring to thwart women's ambitions. Formal and informal networking by men is a way of life, but many of these forums are off-limits to women because of family commitments, if not formal rules. How many women, after all, have you seen opening the batting at the company do?

Recognising this, a growing number of companies have set up their own in-house networks designed to give women the help and support that men have relied on for centuries. Caroline Gielnik runs the the Industrial Society's Pepperell Network, which was set up 18 months ago to meet the training and development needs of junior and middle management women. Ms Gielnik, who has advised many companies on setting up in-house networks, says that their biggest value lies in bringing together women who would not otherwise meet.

'On the whole, women have a revulsion to politicking and using informal communications networks,' she says. 'In-house networks force them to do what men do instinctively.'

Benefits include finding out what is going on in the organisation, which bosses are good to work for, what sorts of projects to get involved with, and learning how to progress through the company. And, Ms Gielnik says, networking can break the sense of isolation that more senior managers in particular often feel. Networks run lectures and courses on career development and organise talks from high-ranking executives.

Procter & Gamble set up a women's network 18 months ago as part of a commitment to building an environment in which all managers can develop. Catherine Nelson, a brand manager with Procter & Gamble, runs it. She says that a positive climate of support for the network stems partly from the culture of the company's US parent. 'In the United States there is a large number of women managers and even in the UK our quota of women managers - at senior as well as more junior levels - is better than the average,' she says. Senior management provides funding and a place to meet and, most crucially, endorsement for the network, which filters from the top right through the organisation.

'The network serves the dual purpose of showing just what women can achieve and how they get from A to Z,' Ms Nelson says. 'Male role models are important, but it's easier to identify with women. Female role models can demonstrate, for example, that you can head a big business as well as being the mother of three children. And they can give you tips on how to do it.'

The emphasis is as much on changing men's attitudes as teaching women how to operate within a man's world. So the network opens many of its meetings to men - many of whom have wives, girlfriends or sisters who are interested in forging management careers.

It is too soon to see a noticeable rise in the number of women managers as a result of the network, Ms Nelson says, but men are now much more aware of the issues facing women managers. 'That has made for a far more positive, less stereotypical working environment. People are far more receptive to different management styles, and the focus is much more on results rather than style.'

There is a more tolerant approach to family commitments, for example, with meetings scheduled to take into account the fact that someone may have to disappear to pick up their children.

The women's network at the News and Current Affairs department at the BBC claims to have had a similarly beneficial effect. The percentage of senior women in the division remains pitifully small, not least because of the demands - such as being on call 24 hours a day.

But, says Kate Pluck, equal opportunities manager for the department: 'Our network is raising awareness and has also given women the confidence to be more assertive and tell their managers what they feel and what they need.'

Midland Bank (now part of HSBC Holdings) has had a women's network since 1988. In the last 10 years the bank has doubled its number of women managers to around 20 per cent. But since 60 per cent of the bank's employees are women, Christine Davies, who runs the network, knows there is still some way to go. Ms Davies, a compensation manager, believes the commitment of more senior women would be highly beneficial.

They are toying with the idea of asking women to bring along male colleagues or bosses. 'We don't want the men to take things over, but we feel it's worthwhile trying to gently open the door to them, otherwise we're in danger of creating our own glass ceiling,' she added. It is a real danger. A female manager of a Midland branch in London says joining the network has taught her to suppress her own personality and play by the men's rules. That has had benefits, such as enabling her to handle her own appraisals better - 'I am less emotional and more professional, and I take comments less personally.' But she admits it is an indictment of the bank that it cannot better harness women's skills and styles.

As Victoria Hillier, equal opportunities manager for British Telecom, which launched its women's network in 1987, says: 'As business grows more complex it needs more flexible and versatile management.'

Ms Hillier says that men are receptive to ways of promoting women. 'The needs of men and women are coming closer. The concept of the 'new man' is taking over from the old-style 'macho management'. Lots of men are sick of the hours and excesses that were common in the 1980s - many belong to dual-career families and they are glad to see women bring issues like more flexible working hours on to the agenda.'

(Photograph omitted)