I'm often asked: Should I join a women's network?
I used to perceive women's networks – which often met over the lunch hour – as places to endlessly complain about work, spouses or children; frankly, I preferred to eat at my desk. From my current perspective, I now know that I missed out on lucrative opportunities.
I wasn't alone in dismissing women's networks as coffee-klatches with intangible benefits that remained hard to calculate. A 2011 study of women's networks inside organizations showed that, while members found a network personally beneficial and believed it added value to the firm, the company's leadership didn't see the value to the bottom line.
Yet, there is a palpable change taking place in how these networks are regarded, both by women and the world at large. The perception is shifting from that of a knitting circle to a power circle where women go to boost their career prospects. These clubs appear to be attracting the new power brokers, not just the complainers.
There is no better example of this shift in thinking than the news last month that Sallie Krawcheck, once called "the most powerful woman on Wall Street," for an undisclosed sum bought 85 Broads, a global women's organization that boasts 30,000 members.
This from a woman once seen as a contender to run the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission who proclaimed that she spent most of her career avoiding the topic of being a woman in business.
Her announcement on LinkedIn demonstrates that altruism played no role in this decision. It is clearly part of a more lucrative plan – she now calls investing in women "smart business."
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., has turned the concept of women's networking into a full-fledged grassroots revolution, inspiring women around the globe to form "Lean In" circles. According to a recent report, the movement boasts 200,000 members.
The rise of informal women's networking groups caught the attention of New York-based journalist Pamela Ryckman three years ago, while she was attending a women's conference in California.
"The women there were incredibly warm," recalled Ms. Ryckman, who recently published Stiletto Network: Inside the Women's Power Circles that are Changing the Face of Business. "They were talking about transactions but they were also talking about their home lives and others interests."
Through these events, women counselled each other through divorces, sick children, and workplace obstacles. The support being offered behind closed doors was a much different story than the one portrayed of women in the work force as unsupportive of each other.
"The most surprising thing is that the world has one view of women in the work force but there is an entirely different story. It's just happening behind closed doors. … [This] is a love story disguised as a business story."
Ms. Ryckman attributes this change to the evolution of women in business. "Women have been getting together to talk since time immemorial but they haven't had the accumulated wealth to do much for each other. Now they do."
In addition to wealth, women increasingly fill more senior roles in business and they are reaching the critical mass needed to effectively network with each other and to reach out to younger women.
Marie-Josée Gagnon, president and founder of Casacom, a public relations and communications firm, cites her involvement in the Women Presidents' Organization as critical to her success.
"The success of a person's career substantially depends on the strength of her network," Ms. Gagnon asserted. "After expertise and hard work, the ability to build relationships is the third prerequisite for professional success and the higher you move up, the more crucial it becomes."
Creating and maintaining robust networks clearly pays off in direct gains.
Catharine Devlin, president of Devlin e-Business Architects and a member at Verity, a private club for professional women in Toronto, said her membership has "paid for itself many times over." It's a sentiment Verity founder Mary Aitken hears often.
On rare occasions, networks can produce tremendous business results.
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, co-founder of Gilt Groupe, admitted that when the flash sales site launched in 2007, her role was to convince brands of her vision, something that could not have been possible without the power of networks.
"The way we built our membership was completely based on our network. It was Halloween, 2007, and we gave ourselves 13 days to get as many people to sign up as possible and we reached out to every person we ever contacted. We signed up 13,000 people," Ms. Wilson said.
Those signups came directly from e-mails to contacts the founders had made over the years. She admits the number they reached out to far exceeded those who registered. The company's valuation now ranges from $600-million to $1.1-billion, according to reports.
That should make most people reconsider eating at their desk.