Networking is the new feminism, for good and ill

October 2, 2013, 4:33 PM UTC

FORTUNE — In July 2012, approximately 25 women from a range of companies gathered in a Morgan Stanley (MS) conference room in Manhattan to hear consultant Carin Rockind give a talk entitled “Happiness – The Other Key to Success.” Billed as an executive women’s breakfast, organizer Sarah Ricca, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, says the purpose of that first breakfast, beyond just having a good time, was unclear.

“Nobody really knew why they were there and what was going on,” she says. But Ricca, as it turned out, had unknowingly provided a service that many women were looking for: the opportunity to network with other women. The breakfasts took on a life of their own, mostly through word of mouth, and at the next event there were 50 attendees. At the January 2013 breakfast, there were more than 100.

The growth of Ricca’s breakfasts is no anomaly. According to Brand X Research, a research and market consultancy, women are increasingly looking for opportunities to network with other women. In 2011, for example, three out of 10 women who participated in the survey planned to leave their current networking groups for women-only networking groups. By 2012, that ratio had increased to five out of 10. There are women’s networking groups in seemingly every industry — legal, media, art, finance, technology, medicine, just to name a few. Others are industry agnostic, organized by alumni groups or geographic location. Some center around face-to-face meetings; others exist only online; while other women-focused groups wind up becoming a networking resource unintentionally.

Take Women, Action & the Media, a group that’s responsible for major changes in Facebook’s hate speech policy. “I don’t ever describe WAM as a networking group,” says Jaclyn Friedman, founder and executive director, but, “I know that people use it for networking and I think that’s great.”

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Women are drawn to networking groups for different reasons than men, argues Hazel Walker, co-author of Business Networking and Sex: Not what you think. “Women join networking groups for support,” she says. “Men join networking groups for money, to do business deals.”

But it’s not like women have suddenly become more collaborative with each other. So why are female-focused networking groups growing now?

In 2007, writer and feminist Erica Jong argued in a piece in the Huffington Post that “Mentoring is the New Feminism.” Six years later, Deborah Spar, president of Barnard College and the author of the recently published Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, says that young women are still under-mentored. (Spar and Walker both point out the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Sponsorship involves actively advocating for an individual, instead of merely advising them. Spar and Walker agree that women need more of both.)

Spar attributes the lack of mentorship among women to several factors, including well intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful corporate programs. “Many organizations have put mentorship programs in place, hoping that they would be the magic bullet,” Spar says. “They’re just not sufficient.”

Another problem: Mentors tend to look for mentees who remind them of themselves when they were younger. “If the people in positions of power are all white men, the people they’re going to take an interest in are probably going to be younger white men,” says Spar.

Spar says she’s “not a huge fan of networking” because it often leads to “a series of one-off relationships” instead of real, meaningful connections. “You meet someone interesting at a cocktail party, but do you ever really see them again?”

Not everybody would agree, though. Walker says, “[Networking] is a great way to find a mentor,” because it provides an opportunity for younger women to find more senior counterparts who they already “know, like, and trust.”

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But could networking with only other women be a form of self-sabotage? Spar notes the necessity of finding mentors in positions of power and that, with women still only accounting for 15.2% of Fortune 500 board members, 16% of partners at the largest law firms, and 19% of surgeons, those people still tend to be men. Says Spar, “There’s the obvious problem that a lot of the women’s networks are all women, and so if the women aren’t in the positions of power, then you’re networking with people who themselves don’t have a lot of power.”

Some networking groups are tackling this problem head on. Ricca’s breakfasts — which are separate from Morgan Stanley’s own women’s initiatives — include a targeted “mix of [women] executives and decision-makers, either business owners or director levels or above,” creating what she describes as a “power-networking environment.” She doesn’t know of any mentorship relationships that have developed as a result, but there has been at least one “dream job” found through the breakfasts, media opportunities, and a number of new client relationships — results she attributes to the participation of “that level of woman [who] can make decisions about how to directly assist someone else.”

This may be a slow way to change the number of women at the top, but as WAM’s Friedman puts it, “[Networking] is part of relationship building and those relationships that we build create community, the base from which we can make change.”