For business professionals the ability to network effectively is not just a nice thing to be able to do—it’s a crucial skill on which their careers depend. Across industries, approximately 80 percent of job openings are filled through word-of-mouth referrals. And although networking is often discussed as a job searching tool, that’s only one of its potential applications. Building relationships through networking can help land clients, for example, or finesse deals. What you know is certainly important, but who you know is often the key differentiator.
Surely women in business have cause to be optimistic. After all, at its core, networking is about building relationships. And if radical feminists and male chauvinists can agree on anything, it’s that women are good at building relationships. Thanks to nurture, nature, or some combination thereof, the average woman has capacities for cooperation and empathy that vastly exceed those found in the average man.
However, despite their facility with interpersonal relationships, women face some particular social challenges while networking, and they may not be what you’d expect.
The Relationship Paradox: An Overblown Concern
Some career experts believe that women are ill-equipped for the social aggressiveness that sometimes characterizes networking, especially the type of networking that might lead to a job. They decry the fact that persistent social pressures–to be modest, to be ladylike–prevent women from assertively marketing themselves and their accomplishments or from stepping outside their comfort zone to promote themselves to potential employers. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of countless tomes written to assure women that it’s okay to be aggressive, to cold-call a contact, and to strew business cards around like confetti.
The idea here is that women may be reluctant to fully exploit their personal relationships, for just that reason–it seems exploitative.
It may be in part because women value personal connections so highly and seek to avoid confrontation and uncomfortable situations so much that they are hesitant to mine relationships for maximum professional advantage. From childhood, girls are nudged away from straightforward and confrontational games in favor of more congenial pastimes like playing house. Certain career experts point out that this gender stereotyping exists even in the enlightened environment of today.
In 2005, for example, nominees for the Toy Industry Association’s Best Girl Toy of the Year included Cabbage Patch Kids and Magic Hair Fairytale Dora. Best Boy Toy nominees, on the other hand, included LEGO’s Knights Kingdom (complete with evil villains) and Lazer Tag. While there’s no guarantee that Dora and the Cabbage Patch Kids will get along, they seldom take up arms against one another. Weapons aren’t even sold separately.
Are women, essentially, brought up to avoid the perceived social aggressiveness that underlies networking? While psychosocial issues may come into play for women while networking, academic researchers and businesswomen, alike, discount the gender stereotype argument and agree that such concerns are largely overblown.
One networking expert who thinks women are as good at networking as men is Lillian Bjorseth, a speaker, trainer, and author who has made a career of helping business professionals create valuable relationships through networking.
Certainly, she says, traits like shyness are obstacles to effective self-promotion. But having observed countless professionals as they network, Bjorseth believes that these traits can affect men as much as women. “The dauntless networkers, who have no fear, can be men or women,” she says. “Behavior does not correlate by gender.”
Studies confirm Bjorseth’s field observation that women are not afraid to network–in fact, research suggests that women are no more cowed by the idea than men are. In 1990, for example, sociologists Karen Campbell, of Vanderbilt University, and Peter Marsden of Harvard, found that female job seekers are likely to turn to informal networks roughly as often as men are.
However, what Bjorseth believes is that while women are willing to network, their searches may not be as fruitful as those of men. Women prefer to network with other women, the research finds, and this means that they have fewer top executives with whom to build relationships.
A Good Woman is Hard to Find
In 1997, Kevin Leicht of the University of Iowa and Jonathan Marx of Winthrop University studied new hires over a four-month period at a large, multi-state banking institution. Their results supported an interesting conclusion: People who found jobs through a word-of-mouth referral were more likely to use a “same-gender informant” than a contact of the opposite sex.
When networking, in other words, women are more likely to look for and find a job through another woman than through a man, and men are more likely to find a job through another man.
This finding makes intuitive sense, says Bjorseth. “In business, like tends to want to work with like. You often hear that opposites attract, but I don’t think that’s true in work,” she says. “And there are only six women CEOs in the Fortune 500. When you look at that, and think about like seeking like, it’s pretty easy to understand who has the upper hand.”
This tendency poses no problem for women in the early stages of their professional careers, since women fill fully half of all managerial positions. As you move up the corporate hierarchy, though, the ratio of women to men plummets, which does not bode well for up-and-coming women.
Women hold only 8 percent of top jobs in major corporations, and barely 15 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers are women. Experienced professional women who want to network with women have a smaller pool of top executives with whom to network, leading to a smaller universe of connections to jobs, resources, and deal-makers.
“Women aren’t always privy to networking at the places where they are likely to get better results,” says Bjorseth. “It’s one of the realities of business.”
In other words, a good woman is hard to find. More than anything else, this is probably the biggest impediment to effective networking for women.
Cast Your Net a Little Wider
When beginning a job search, job seekers are always advised to alert everyone they know to the fact that they’re on the market. As discussed above, since women are likely to have more extant relationships with other women than with men, and those women are unlikely to be in very powerful positions, the job seekers’ chances of finding the position of substance that they want may be limited.
But Carson Mencken, a sociology professor at Baylor University, has a solution to break this negative networking cycle. “The literature on job search shows that there are distinct advantages to learning about jobs from colleagues or acquaintances (weak ties) rather than from close family or friends (strong ties),” he says in a 2000 paper on the influence of gender in job searching.
This is because people who have strong ties to one another–i.e., someone you work with daily–might not have any new information for you. Your pools of knowledge overlap, as do your contacts and the activities in which you participate. But if you tap a new acquaintance, someone who is outside your established professional and social realms, it’s likely that he or she will have fresh information.
A weak tie might not be as motivated to help you, but his or her insights are more likely to be news to you. Another advantage of networking with someone you don’t know that well is that it helps keep professional and personal spheres separate, which is, as mentioned above, something women often value.
Women, then, are encouraged to cast their nets for professional relationships a bit farther out, beyond those people they know well and beyond their usual networking perimeters. Professional organizations, for instance, are wonderful places to network, but look for those that will expand your reach. You may be in the communications field, but why not join a leadership group for women in technology? Technology companies have communications needs too, and you might make some valuable inroads into a new industry. Charities are also rich avenues for networking—when you volunteer for an organization that has corporate sponsors, you open up a whole new world of potential contacts.
Experts agree that good networking opportunities can come in almost any venue–from conferences to trade shows to airports. Laura Hill recently noted that golf is still an important bonding activity in corporate America. Hill, a managing director at Crenshaw Associates, advised women not to ignore this networking opportunity, even though it may be outside their comfort zone.
She added that only the most rudimentary knowledge of golf is necessary–you just have to be able to hit a few balls, not even in a particularly right direction. For executives, the real hole in one is leaving the green with a pocket full of business cards.