A Rose by Any Other Name: Considering Professional Women-Only  Networks as a Social Movement

Over the past decades, female participation in the labour market has increased significantly. Yet there are frequent  reports of continued gender inequalities in employment context, such as persistent wage and opportunity gaps and  the overrepresentation of women in precarious employment.1 Given these continued inequalities, it is unsurprising  that professional women-only networks (PWONs) are a growing phenomenon.2,3 These member-based  organisations aim to provide a platform where women can share their experiences and access work-related  opportunities and information. A broad range of such networks exists: from inter-organisational to occupation wide, and from national to global women’s networks.4 At face value, such networks are not often linked to social  movements, or even considered as a social movement organisation. However, there are multiple reasons why it is  absolutely relevant to include PWONs within the social movement framework. 

Perhaps it is difficult to consolidate the classical imagery of the loud and disruptive activist – often recognised by  their explicit lack of formal wear – with the aims and ambitions of women in professional settings. This is not just  true for individual women: From an academic perspective too, social movements are viewed as something which  exists primarily outside of institutions.5,6 In fact, for some scholars, institutionalisation signals the maturation of a  social movement. Worker’s unions for instance are seen as a sort of end station for the labour Movement which,  through institutionalisation, has moved out of the public sphere and ‘matured’ into something else entirely.7 Following this line of reasoning, PWONs are disregarded from the study of social movements on the basis of their  formality and their institutional embeddedness.

To counter this argument, one could first consider what PWONs are and how they fit the scholarly  definitions of a social movement: They are a network based on a collective identity (professional women) that uses  various strategies to further women’s career advancement. Moreover, PWONs provide a platform for individual  women to politicise their individual experiences and to share their awareness with the broader community.2 At their core, women’s networks thus also reflect a reality in which the personal is political – to put it in activist terms.  As such, PWONs could be considered in implicit opposition to patriarchal structures and authorities.

Some critical scholars may claim that this application of social movement theory is symptomatic of so-called micro-politics, whereby activism is divided into identities and issue groups beyond which individuals do not  engage.2,8,9 This does not, however, disqualify PWONs from the social movement sphere. In a way, the ‘maturity’  previously discussed is indicative of the ways in which women’s activism has changed over time. Fragmentation can  also be read as specialisation whereby women maximise the return on collective expertise within a specific arena.8  

Contrary to the idea that institutionalised forms of activism have somehow aged out of the social movement  domain, PWONs represent a form of activism which mobilises individuals as “insider activists” who can generate impact directly at the site where change is needed.8,10

At the same time, it could be argued that members of PWONs more easily join formal networks precisely  because they are not so associated with activism. This raises the question whether intentionality at the individual  level features as a core ingredient of social movements. Women join PWONs to better their own position rather  than out of an inner social or moral obligation. But like social movements, PWONs themselves also transform  instrumentally motivated individuals into critical communities through the use of ideological frames. To put it differently: the personal is not only political, but the political is also personal. Whether women seek social support,  professional information or other resources, the process by which women’s networks raise consciousness remains  an important activity through which personal lives and political realities become connected.11

Because social capital structures and gains are inherently gendered12, catalysing the network capacities of  women is not just a career intervention: not only do PWONs provide members with tool and opportunities to improve their ability to participate in their professional ecosystem, but they also empower women beyond their  individual career trajectories.13 In fact, these network effects become both a precondition for (further) mobilisation  and a condition for the elaboration of the tools and repertoires used by networks of professional women. Thus, by  conceptualising networking as a practice which organises a collective body, PWONs emerge as a potential driver of  transformative changes beyond those it explicitly aims for.14

In conclusion,scholars should not be too quick to dismiss professional forms of organisation from the study of social  movements. Ultimately, this is not about stretching and pulling definitions (which is a futile endeavour, because  social movements are neither discrete nor static categories15). It is far more relevant to consider the ways in which  institutional categories can “involve movement-like processes of mobilisation, framing, and the endogenous  evolution of collective identities”.16 Melding scholarships on social movements and organisations thus reveals how self-organisation through PWONs constitutes a site for collective action.16,17 And for the women who are involved  in PWONs too, recognising the interplay between activist and professional domains could be fruitful. Through their participation in professional women-only networks, they can contribute to wider societal change processes – without ever burning any of their bras.


[1] Metz, Isabel, and Phyllis Tharenou. 2016. “Women’s Career Advancement: The Relative Contribution of Human and  Social Capital.” 26(3):312–42. doi: 10.1177/1059601101263005.

[2] Baltzersen, Anita. 1984. “Women’s Networks: An Exploration into Their Use for Empowerment and Social Change.”  The African Review: A Journal of African Politics, Development and International Affairs 11(1):34–54.

[3] McCarthy, Helen. 2004. Girlfriends in High Places : How Women’s Networks Are Changing the Workplace. Demos.

[4] Examples include small-scale organisations such as the British Women in Journalism or the Dutch Topvrouwen Bouw & Infra, as well as  large-scale organisations such as the global Women in Academia Support Network (WIASN), Al-Sahm Women (focussed on professional  women in the MENA-region), and the Professional Women’s Network (PWN) which has multiple country- and even city-specific factions.

[5] Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Tim Bartley. 2007. “Social Movement Organizations.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of  Sociology. doi: 10.1002/9781405165518.WBEOSS158.

[6] Diani, Mario. 2011. “The Concept of Social Movement.” 40(1):1–25. doi: 10.1111/J.1467-954X.1992.TB02943.X.

[7] Heery, Edmund. 2018. “Fusion or Replacement? Labour and the ‘new’ Social Movements.” Economic and Industrial  Democracy 39(4):661–80. doi: 10.1177/0143831X18777616.

[8] Griffin, Gabriele. 1995. “Introduction.” Pp. 1–10 in Feminist Activism in the 1990s, edited by G. Griffin. London:  Taylor & Francis Ltd.

[9] Scholl, Christian. 2014. “The New Social Movements Approach.” Pp. 233–58 in Handbook of Political Citizenship and  Social Movements, edited by H. A. van der Heijden.

[10] Buchter, Lisa L. 2019. “‘Companies Can Do Better than the Law’: Securing Rights for Minorities as an Insider Activist  in French Corporations.” Studies in Law Politics and Society 81:11–44. doi: 10.1108/S1059- 433720190000081002.

[11] Avdelidou-Fischer, Nicole, and Gill Kirton. 2015. “Beyond Burned Bras and Purple Dungarees: Feminist Orientations  within Working Women’s Networks.” 23(2):124–39. doi: 10.1177/1350506815578193.

[12] Bezanson, Kate. 2006. “Gender and the Limits of Social Capital*.” Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue Canadienne  de Sociologie 43(4):427–43. doi: 10.1111/J.1755-618X.2006.TB01142.X.

[13] McAdam, Maura, Richard T. Harrison, and Claire M. Leitch. 2019. “Stories from the Field: Women’s Networking as  Gender Capital in Entrepreneurial Ecosystems.” Small Business Economics 53(2):459–74. 

[14] Bleijenbergh, Inge, Marina Cacace, Daniela Falcinelli, Elena del Giorgio, and Giovanna Declich. 2020. “How Dutch  and Italian Women’s Networks Mobilize Affect to Foster Transformative Change towards Gender Equality.”  28(1):10–25. doi: 10.1177/1350506820941136.

[15] Castañeda, Ernesto. 1992. “Analyzing Contemporary Social Movements.” Pp. 167–75 in Social Movements, 1768- 2018, edited by C. Tilly and E. Castañeda. New York: Routledge.

[16] Walker, Edward T. 2012. “Social Movements, Organizations, and Fields: A Decade of Theoretical Integration.”  Contemporary Sociology 41(5):576–87. doi: 10.1177/0094306112457651B.

[17] Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Tim Bartley. 2007. “Social Movement Organizations.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of  Sociology. doi: 10.1002/9781405165518.WBEOSS158.

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