Where’s my old girls’ network?

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Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about a supposed old girls’ network. You know what I mean by this: the old, white men who used to run industry are slowly being joined by a cadre of women who exert similar power.

Take this piece in the Washington Post, by Carrie Johnson, about just such a network in techology.

Fewer women enroll in college-level computer science courses today than 20 years ago. Female entrepreneurs collect a pittance of the venture capital handed out by money men. The region’s tech millionaires are mostly white males approaching middle age.

Yet the doom-filled studies all neglect a phenomenon that’s thriving, though often invisible: a groundswell among women with technical skills to recruit more of their own into well-paying, intellectually challenging professions. Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the virtual communities and user groups that tech-savvy women are creating for themselves.

A similar trend is seen in Hollywood, says the New York Times‘ Nancy Hass:

Four of the six major studios have women in the top creative decision-making roles, as Ms. Berman joins Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal; Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony Pictures; and Nina Jacobson, president of Walt Disney Company’s Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group. Earlier this month, Ms. Snider announced that Mary Parent and Scott Stuber, would be stepping down as vice chairmen at Universal to become producers on the lot; their replacement is Donna Langley, the Universal executive who oversaw “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” and “In Good Company.”

Though men still figure most prominently in the corporate echelons of the media companies that own the studios, and talent agencies like William Morris and Creative Artists Agency are still male dominated, these women, who over the years have fought and fostered one another as part of a loose sisterhood, have finally buried the notion that Hollywood is a man’s world.

Kate Stone Lombardi laments in the NYT about having to claw her way into a writing career before such a network existed:

I didn’t have much guidance. I remember being frustrated a good deal of the time. All of my bosses were male. Several of them made advances, but “sexual harassment” was not yet in the public lexicon, at least not on Capitol Hill. Instead, you ducked away gracefully, taking care not to antagonize the man to whom you still had to report.

Here’s what strikes me. The female workforce is far more fluid for reasons that include family, career goals and changing personal needs. That means that even as women scrabble their way into top jobs, they may quickly leave those posts and be replaced—most often—by men.

And then what?

Some who leave reach back to help those who stay behind. This from BusinessWeek:

Few women in the venture-capital community understand the power of branding better than Isabella Capital founder Peg Wyant, a former general manager for Procter & Gamble. Now, Wyant wants to brand Isabella Capital the top venture-capitalist firm led by women, specializing in women’s startups.

As a case study, I offer up my own workplace. I’m pretty sure the term “old boys network” was coined by TIME. There are still staffers who remember the days when newly hired women were shuttled to the researcher’s pen, while men with the exact same degrees and experience were ushered on to the writing track. By a year ago, some of the names highest on the masthead belonged to women. The second in command, along with the editors who ran international coverage, the human interest section, arts, photos, copy, plus our marquee writers—all were women.

And then something shifted. Our deputy, Priscilla Painton, left after two decades at TIME to seek a second career—as it turned out, in book publishing. A few other top editors and writers left, some of them disillusioned by the new direction of the magazine, others wanting a different work-life balance. Some were pushed out in the restructuring.

We still have women in important jobs at my workplace, as you probably do in yours; and while some have left, others have risen. But I’ve long felt that women simply have a different relationship to their jobs than do men. The old boys’ network came about because a clutch of men hunkered down and became indispensable to their companies and industries, and thus were able to call the shots, including the hiring of more people just like them. We women don’t seem to have that same territorial instinct about our jobs.

I think that doesn’t have to hurt us, or to stop our sisters from trying to get a leg up. We just have to expand the definition of network beyond the company that happens to employ us just then. In fact, one editor who departed recently called to tell me about a job opening at a company where neither of us had ever worked.

That’s the kind of old girl I want to be.