Professional women now have their own network, says Val Leveson

Key Points:

We all know that professional women face various obstacles in their careers, not the least being a sense of isolation, particularly when they move to top positions. Two Auckland professional women have decided to do something positive about this by creating an online community for such women - Professionelle.

Galia Bar Hava-Monteith, who has a masters in psychology and a particular interest in positive psychology, says: "Professionelle is about what's positive. We want women to come to our site and feel good - they need to see what can be done, what's going right but can be better."

In an article on the website she defines positive psychology as: "The scientific study of the good and fulfilled life. Positive psychologists scientifically study positive emotions, positive personality traits and positive Basically, they study what makes life worth living. Articles and books in this field cover topics such as happiness, optimism, wisdom, courage, humanity and humour."

Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes, who has an MBA in marketing, says: "Our business case is that you don't have to be apologetic about being a woman in a top position or wanting to go there. We're not about the problems - we're about looking at what can be done."

The EEO Trust recently held a Diversity in Action workshop during which Bar Hava-Monteith and Wilshaw-Sparkes presented their research and explained how their website is helping women in the workplace.

Both women have years of experience in the corporate world. Membership to the online community they have established is free, while they use information gleaned from it to build the back office side of their business: workshops, consulting and executive coaching.

Bar Hava-Monteith is an honorary research fellow at Auckland University, and she uses this to examine patterns in academic research. Professionelle also looks at the research other companies have done and conducts its own by running online surveys and seeing what articles create the most "chatter". It then runs workshops on these topics.

Bar Hava-Monteith and Wilshaw-Sparkes say that there are many myths about women in leadership roles. "It's not that women lack fire in their bellies to lead. International research has demonstrated that women and men are remarkably similar in aspirations and achievements.

"It's not, despite the 'mummy myth', that women are dropping out to be mothers: data from a thousand Professionelle members show that while New Zealand's professional women might opt out of traditional employment for a period of time, they do it to shift to more flexible work arrangements, like contracting."

Bar Hava-Monteith and Wilshaw-Sparkes talk of career onramps and offramps, based on research by Harvard Business Review (HBR).

"It's about companies maintaining contact - creating an onramp back to the company after such things as maternity leave," Bar Hava-Monteith says.

"We know from the experiences our members have shared with us that building an onramp after time out of the workforce, and thus typically with a new employer, is very challenging.

"Several organisations have recently launched [programmes] in this country to address the needs of this group. Most of our working mother members returned after fairly short breaks to prior employers and to flexible work arrangements of some sort.

"Discussing on- and offramps is an example of how Professionelle creates opportunities for women to share their experiences around meaningful and relevant topics."

Added Wilshaw-Sparkes: "There is great power in the personal story - and our members very generously share theirs in a meaningful way."

Another myth about women in the workplace is the glass ceiling.

Bar Hava-Monteith says: "The truth is it's far more complicated than women climbing up the corporate ladder and being stopped at a certain place, and to aim interventions at a glass ceiling does not work."

A better term is the `Labyrinth of Leadership', an HBR term. Through their careers, women are not naturally absorbed into informal networks, nor do they easily find mentors or role models among male-dominated management ranks. The boys' club is alive and well, but much of it is unconscious and invisible to those perpetuating it, Wilshaw-Sparkes says.

And yet research shows that having women in the top structure of management is beneficial to the bottom line. A term created by Professionelle is the "Bellewether Factor".

"Companies with at least three female directors have been found to outperform their peers," says Bar Hava-Monteith. "Thirty per cent in senior management - the magic number three seems to be the tipping point where there is a positive correlation between women on the board and financial results. The theory is that in these companies, the culture is one where diversity is welcomed. This leads to innovation."

And then there are the "Queens of the Hill". Research has found that during turbulent times, when there is an appetite for change, it's more likely that women will ascend to the top positions in a company.

Says Wilshaw-Sparkes: "Perhaps it's because women are seen as being different - and so their leadership will lead to change, or maybe it's because they're more flexible and more willing to take a pay cut, but it seems that in hard times they are trusted to make a difference."

When building Professionelle, Bar Hava-Monteith and Wilshaw-Sparkes decided to investigate what actions could make a positive difference for women in the workplace.

"We asked our members to tell us three things that `make it work' for them and keep them on an upward trajectory," Wilshaw-Sparkes says.

The answers they received were: mentoring; flexibility and support (both at work and home - superwoman is another unhelpful myth); and engagement and opportunities to use their strengths at work.

Bar Hava-Monteith says this is particularly where positive psychology comes in. "It's about looking at what you can do, not what you can't. It's about playing to our strengths, not focusing on our weaknesses."

Next Professionelle looked to research. The Centre for Women in Business at London Business School identified four waves of intervention that European businesses provide for career-long support for women.

These include addressing gender diversity issues; developing flexibility practices; creating support networks and preparing women to be leaders (research demonstrates that this intervention is the most powerful, yet the least developed).

They then considered what women could do for themselves. "It is now widely acknowledged that women globally under-invest in their social capital. Building influential networks is one intervention which can be done by women for women independently of their place of work," Bar Hava-Monteith and Wilshaw-Sparkes say.

"Women-only networks, be they offline or online, like Professionelle, are designed to address this need."

The site currently has 1200 members. The typical member is a woman in her 30s or 40s, based in New Zealand, in full-time employment, educated to a bachelor's level or above and working for a corporate or professional services firm.

Bar Hava-Monteith and Wilshaw-Sparkes post fascinating articles on the site about such things as waiting for your career "prince charming"; the secrets of successful working mums; book reviews and even health/fashion advice.

Members are invited to discuss these issues and raise any other concerns. Feedback is sought and carefully considered.

Bar Hava-Monteith says next year Professionelle plans to create a "premium membership" through web version 2.0, which will allow foreven more flexibility and interaction.

At the moment the company runs four-hour workshops covering topics such as positive psychology, building a personal brand and women leaders.

The feedback has been that more is wanted - and so their workshops will be extended next year into four sessions of four hours each. These will include homework, so the ideas that come from the workshops can be integrated into people's lives.

Professionelle's activities for the public include workshops, executive coaching and networking events where issues of interest are discussed - such as work/life balance or what makes a good mentor. For companies they do in-house workshops, a leadership programme for women, consulting, research and coaching.

The Professionelle website can be found at www.professionelle.co.nz