Business analysis: breaking the glass ceiling, one networking event at a time

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The Independent Online

It is unfortunately still noteworthy when a woman reaches a senior position in a big company. When interviewed they generally have to spend as much time talking about the unusual position in which they find themselves as they do about the performance of their business. Over the years, there have been various initiatives aimed at improving the numbers, while in some cases women themselves have formed networking groups as a way of giving each other support and inspiring each other to press forward and upward through the glass ceilings that are still so prevalent in many sectors.

One of these networking groups - everywoman, which was founded in 1999 by Maxine Benson and Karen Gill - earlier this month announced its latest annual awards marking the role played by women in retail. Among the women honoured in the awards, run in conjunction with Specsavers, were Jayne Cartwright, head of retail for Save the Children (who was named Specsavers Woman of the Year); Emma Harris, head of food business development for the supermarkets group ASDA; and Liz Bell, human resources director for the do-it-yourself group B&Q.

Everywoman co-founder Maxine Benson said that she hoped the awards would inspire more women into such roles. The truth is, though, that there are probably more women involved at at least some management position in retail than in many other sectors. The problem for big business in general is that many women become fed up with trying to balance their jobs with their home life and take a different option.

For many, that option is setting up on their own or with others in a similar position. Government statistics suggest that about a third of UK business owners are women, while there is evidence that the gap between male and female-owned start-ups has narrowed sharply.

Many of these businesses are so-called lifestyle businesses - a means of combining a job with bringing up a family, say - but many others develop into significant concerns. Still others would like to grow, but feel prevented by a lack of marketing skills, contacts or simply time.

It is this category that Geraldine Brooks is seeking to serve with her Sugargroup venture. When she started working for herself after a long period working in the travel business she realised that most conventional networking events were either almost entirely male or male-oriented. So she decided to set up a women-focused networking group alongside her own marketing and promotions business.

Although men are welcome to attend, the emphasis is very much on tempting women - often those working in the creative or alternative health fields - to attend by combining business with pleasure. Typically, events are held at boutique hotels or spas - places that her target audience might want to visit anyway, says Brooks. In addition, she tries to keep numbers down, so that the events are not too intimidating - 25 to 40 attendees is typical.

Having started in the area where she lives in Hastings, East Sussex, she has developed the concept to the point where there are monthly meetings in locations across London and the South-east. Nearly 600 women are signed up.

Such has been the success that Brooks has recently started a VIP section that enables members for a small amount a month to promote themselves through having a profile on the sugargroup website as well as access to discounts on products and services.

The website claims the service covers “the stuff others don't, with a holistic view on life and business”. Whatever the subject matter, the emphasis is on making the occasion enjoyable, memorable and inspiring.

And Brooks is finding that even the more established participants in this area are taking notice. She is planning joint promotions with such organisations as banks and chambers of commerce.