Women Leaders: Build Networks, Not Qualifications

24 March 2024, IOL Business Report

Society has conditioned women to doubt their worth and their contribution. This obsession with fixing women (through never ending training and too many qualifications) have made women believe they are the problem, when, in fact, the system is the problem. Employment equity legislation has been around since 1998 yet the most recent (2022-2023) report of the Employment Equity Commission notes that women still only make up 26% of top management roles. When companies are asked how they are addressing this concern, the general response is often we are offering women training and opportunities to grow their skills. However, there is often little or no recognition that the organisational culture, policies and practices often hold women back from advancement, If women want to move to the upper tiers of the company, they get met with the glass ceiling - seeing that advancement opportunity but being blocked from reaching it by “invisible” barriers. 

This way of thinking has heavily influenced women’s lack of belief in their abilities, and they have also fallen into the trap of thinking they need more qualifications to climb the corporate ladder. However, when one examines the trajectory of men’s advancement, it is rare that qualifications are the driver of progression. Men have mastered the art of networking and relationship building that I believe are crucial to advancing to the highest levels of  management and decision-making.

As a coach that works with women leaders, I, too often, hear women leaders who are seeking to move up talk about getting a qualification to prepare them for this next step. These are generally women who already hold a few qualifications; are exceptionally competent; and have achieved many successes - yet they still question their readiness for that next move. Why? Women tend to apply for jobs only when they are over qualified because  they believe this is the only way they may have a chance. This fear of failure can be crushing to women’s confidence in their abilities. Research  has shown that when women and men were asked about this, 22% of women indicated their top reason was, “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications and I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail.” These women also believed the on-paper “rules” about who the job was for, but for them, the cost of applying was the risk of failure – rather than the wasted time and energy. Notably, only 13% of men cited not wanting to try and fail as their top reason. Women may be wise to be more concerned with potential failure; there is some evidence that women’s failures are remembered longer than men’s. Tara Sophia Mor, HBR

Qualifications are necessary, but is having two Masters degrees really necessary when you are already highly skilled and experienced? This does not mean not doing relevant (short) courses as needed to gain new skills. In fact, I actually encourage this as a way to learn some of the technical skills needed to function in a fast changing world.


Think about it... we often glibly (or in jest) talk about how men network on the golf course. This is true. Men are able to use spaces like these to build or deepen connections, especially after the golf game where they socialise. Women are now being encouraged to do the same but is this really for us? Women have multiple roles that may affect their ability and time to socialise and network. When men are on the golf course, women are often home taking care of the children. Nevertheless, there is a lesson in there - men consciously make efforts to connect with other men and these often lead to significant opportunities. Camille Burns, Forbes     says that access to powerful support networks can have a significant impact on success. Role models, mentors and peers encourage, inspire and build confidence by cultivating professional networks, and they have a vested interest in one another’s success.

Research on how women and men differ in their networking styles by Brian Uzzi, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at the American Kellogg School of Management, analysed over 4,5 million emails of 728 MBA graduates (75 % men, 25 % women) to find out which types of networks make people thrive. Uzzi found that male MBA students with a broad (really broad) network performed best in the job market and secured themselves jobs with more authority and pay. With a network like that, individual characteristics such as test scores, work experience or GPA turned secondary. The Female Factor

As women there is a reluctance to accept help - fuelled by various reasons including not wanting to "inconvenience" others and concerns about being seen as "needy". This reluctance can be the barrier to the advancement we so desire. If we open ourselves to the opportunities provided by networking, the results can be exponential. My own experience attests to this. Since starting my professional career I have invested in building and maintaining relationships with people (women especially) that have added value to my life, and whom I can also support if needed. Banish the thought that networking is selfish and only one way. If you invest in meaningful networking and community building, it will create a spirit of camaraderie and collaboration that can benefit both parties.

I recently read the book "Who Not How" by Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy. This book gave me much food for thought about how to focus on results through working with others, instead of focusing solely on your own effort. The authors argue that it takes wisdom to recognise that others could be more capable than us, and by focusing on the "who" rather than the "how" your life will dramatically increase in all areas - time, money, relationships and purpose. They conclude by saying “You'll come to realise that life really is about people and relationships. You'll come to experience the Transforming Self, wherein you'll change and expand over and over as a person, sometimes in unexpected ways, because of the incredible collaborations and teamwork you create”..


  • Collaboration is non-hierarchical and levels the playing field. It grants everyone equal access, no matter their seniority.
  • Networking can build a bridge that connects individuals, institutions and resources.
  • Skills and expertise can be tapped from others to augment what each person has to offer; leading to results while optimising what you are good at.
  • You can build a broad base of referrals as you expand your network. These are crucial to accessing new opportunities.
  • It allows you to step out of your closed circle and meet new people with different backgrounds – creating opportunities for important, lasting relationships and a major boost in confidence and competence.
  • Creates a support network to learn from the experience of others, for moments when you are having professional difficulties.
  • It can improve your reputation and visibility to accelerate access to new opportunities.

So, as you consider the next qualification that you believe will take you to greater heights; ask yourself:

Am I considering this new qualification because it is critical to achieving my next goal; or because I am fearful of reaching out or connecting with others to support  bymy goal?

Shireen Motara is the Founder CEO of Tara Transform and The Next Chapter. She is also the owner of four successful online business brands

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