Women and networking: strategic or simply social?

Women and networking.  Another hornet’s nest 

Last week was a busy week for women! It started off with Katherine Bigelow  winning an Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, followed swiftly by International Women’s  Day.  Much was written about women’s roles, the progress  they have made and the steps they could make in the future. Then the wives of the UK party leaders were launched into the pre-election build up as the political “hidden weapons”.  Finally,  sneaking in at the end of the week was an article in Times Online  ” Why women are such bad networkers”  by Antonia Senior.

Disbelief kicked in

Initially, I read it  with disbelief and then truthfully with some irritation! Of course women are good at networking! What was she thinking when she said  “women are not natural networkers”? This statement was key to her premise that women are less prevalent in board room positions because of  their lack of “social capital”  (connections) meaning that they are less likely to be head hunted for senior positions, because they seemingly know fewer people. Other serious and more meaningful issues were glossed over a little dismissively as a “range of complicated factors“.

But then I thought about the wider implications.

Women network all day, every day, in all their roles, whether professionally, as parents, as neighbours, as partners or socially. Do we really think that their failure to have a corner board room office is because of their reluctance to sip warm bubbly, nibble inferior canapés and exchange card ?  If it was so simple, wouldn’t women  be sending in their RSVPs to the nearest cocktail party quicker than the preparation of an “amuse bouche?

You would have thought so – but  seemingly they don’t. Why is that?

Naturally social

Women are generally natural communicators. We are social. We keep in touch. We build relationships. We have address books packed with names.  We share information and make referrals willingly. We are active in all sorts of areas.

But An de Jonghe, Managing Partner at  Women on Board, a Belgian initiative to facilitate women’s advancement to directorship roles in local enterprises, says  ” … women are social  rather than strategic networkers and very often network, not for their own purposes, but for the benefit of  other peopleMen network to meet their own professional goals.  Today, it’s still a man’s world and we have to do everything we can to give ourselves an edge, to raise our visibility, even if it means attending receptions we don’t want to go to”  

Social Media

Social media networking is perfect for women because it gives them the flexibility they need to combine key networking with other priorities and allows them to manage their ROR (Return on Relationships) and ROE  Return on Energy) more effectively. The claim  that they have not embraced social media for networking purposes to the same extent as men, flies in the face of the latest research figures released by Nielsen Wire.

Using mobile usage as a litmus test, women’s on-line networking contact  is 10% greater than their male counterparts.  53% American women use social media with Facebook being the primary network of choice. Twitter users are not required to register their gender, but research has shown that women also lead the field in this sector too. 23 million women a year write, read and comment on blogs – the top of the social media pyramid.

Real questions

But once again these figures have a US bias rather than a European one, so there, both male and female usage  alike, is not as high. But millions of  women globally use social media  for business purposes and anyone who is active on these platforms knows that!  Forbes and Technorati have produced lists of women to follow in social media!  Penny Power of Ecademy,   Carrie Wilkerson – Barefoot Executive, and Sarah Brown – just to name a few more ladies who make intelligent use of social media. Some of the most aggressive marketeers on social media I think are actually women!

But de Jonghe suggests that these women are unfortunately only the visible tip of the iceberg . She firmly believes that the vast majority of women use social media for social reasons  and not necessarily for professional advancement. In most geographies on LinkedIn the gender split is 43% women to 57% men.

Cyanide Hours

So why are  women absent from  male orientated networking events? The after work cocktails, boxes at soccer games or golf outings?  After work receptions are frequently held in what I used to call affectionately the “cyanide hours”  (dinner, homework, bath, bed). The pressures on women not to attend these functions are huge. But they are also making choices on how to spend their time.

De Jonghe feels that women need to take responsibility for sharing child care arrangements with their partners,  so they are able to attend such functions. But with the rise of single parent families with the mother as the primary care giver, this is not always easy.  Networking is time-consuming and women with families are  simply not able to give up whole days to  participate in  the type of activities  that Mark Twain suggests  “spoil a good walk. ”

Perhaps this is why women’s networking groups are proliferating globally to connect with each other at various stages in their careers. In Belgium Jump has had a significant impact as well as the huge numbers of women’s networking groups in the UK, US and throughout the world  – too many to mention here.

Effective Leverage

Another issue is whether women are more likely to leverage an emergency babysitter or  a  reliable plumber from their network, rather than a leg up the corporate ladder to a C – suite position?  De Jonghe comments ” Women tend to sit quietly and do a good job and hope to be recognised and discovered. They are reluctant to take the initiative in the way that men do”

But networking is a two-way street. If the thesis is that women are not networking with CEOs (male) then the converse is also true. It also means that head hunters are not being creative  and in the pursuit of  “copy and paste” search methodologies,  are not opening up their own networks to female candidates. With precious few women hovering under board level,  the female talent pool is not huge and it would seem to be in everyone’s interest for that to happen.

Women need a strategy to identify sponsors who will advocate for them in a corporate setting. Companies also need to be more diverse and inclusive in the way they assess talent.

The male way

However, De Jonghe makes a further point that  “while the guys sit cosily in their Board level positions, they are more than happy that women are absent. They have no reason to change the system. The old-boy network works fine for them

So will the ladies have to play the networking game by male rules to make any steps forward? De Jonghe believes so. “Once they get those Clevel appointments ” De Jonghe says  ” women can change the system – but until then , they  have to play the male game.”

In the meantime, while the status quo prevails, it would seem that we women have to be strategic and not just social in our networking efforts. Even if it involves being subjected to warm champagne .

What do you think?

Updated 2021

If your organisations wants to encourage your female talent to network strategically and build a Circle of Success – get in touch NOW! 

13 thoughts on “Women and networking: strategic or simply social?

  1. Kriss Akabusi

    Hi Dorothy,

    I’ve just come back from the Cheltenham Race course in a very exclusive box. The flow of people through out the afternoon was plentiful the feminine gender were well represented.

    Some of the most effective networkers I know are women and what makes these ladies stand out for me is that they get the idea that networking is not primarily about grabbing opportunities for selling your latest concept or product but rather a chance to find ways in which you can help people in the room with your contacts, advice, expertise.

    This works in social sites like twitter and Linkedin and it works in the 3d world too. Well that is my view anyway.

    Thanks for the thought provocation once again.


  2. Dorothy Dalton

    I agree entirely! The way women network is process , rather than goal orientated. It seems that our way is not enough to build up those key contacts which will position us for C level appointments.

    This is what is confounding us all! Great to hear that we have a guy on side!


  3. Linda S Fitzgerald

    As the CEO-CVO (Chief Visionary Officer) of a women’s organization with a unique design, I think one of the main challenges is that over the years, men tended to dominate professional networking organizations. And women who were aggressively ambitious adopted the “male model” rather than doing what they do best & that’s to combine the personal with the professional. When I attend a mixed gender group, there are much fewer women than men & what I hear from our women is they are uncomfortable in that setting because they feel “accosted” by the transactional networking style. They don’t want that!

    An de Jonghe, is talking about corporate women for the most part. The women we meet are entrepreneurs or managing their own small business. They want to form relationships first and do business via warm, qualified referrals from women who know, like, & trust each other. Women they find to be honest in their dealings.

    If Bob Burg’s premise in the “Go Giver” is accurate (and I believe it is), then networking on behalf of others will eventually come back to the woman who is doing it consistently.

    As for being strategic with networking – there is no reason a woman can’t be strategic with a networking plan whether a social event or one designed strictly for networking. Once one knows her target market & niche; determines the best locations to find her market (and who needs what her niche offers), she will find the success she desires.

    Since it’s a process – patience is required!

    Linda S. Fitzgerald

  4. Dorothy Dalton

    Hi Linda – thanks for your sage words and excellent input. An de Jonghe is of course talking about corporate networking activity.

    I agree that anyone running a small business is more likely to network strategically, having already taken that entrepreneurial step. In Europe women opening their own businesses is 50% lower than the US ( see my post Ladies it’s never too late to start up) so I think we could learn a lot from our girl friends from across the pond!

    Lolly Daskal reminded me of a survey carried out in 2008 by the European Professional Women’s Network . Here is an extract:

    Most women practice networking to meet new people. Business reasons, such as ’develop my business’, ‘meet new or potential clients’, ‘advance my career’, ‘find a new job’ and ‘integration at work’, get lower priority behind social and personal development reasons.”

    With time, I believe that women will blend the softer touch approach with their more strategic dealings to everyone’s benefit! What I believe An is saying that to come onto the C- level corporate recruiting radar, in the short term women have to at least increase their professional visibility via strategic rather than simply social networking.

    1. Linda S Fitzgerald

      Thanks for your response Dorothy! Lolly Daskal has become a dear friend & is on the NYC portion of our “2010 Decade of the Woman 2020(tm)” initiative which kicks off in late October this year.

      In our organization, we rarely use the words ‘networking’ and relationships. We developed a model that creates an environment where women can build strong bonded friendships based on honesty, integrity and and mutual trust – first! From that flows warm, qualified referrals. We are now seeing that start to happen.

      Yes, I do think an exchange of ideas, perspectives and concepts between women from both sides of the pond would be mutually beneficial.

      Thank you for a highly provocative post,

      Linda S. Fitzgerald

  5. CV Harquail

    I’m intrigued by the idea that women not only might be less ‘strategic’ in their networking (in the sense of searching out good networking situations and meeting useful people) but also that women may fail to ‘close the deal’. By this I mean, women might make the acquaintance but not exchange business contact information, or chat about the speaker but not share information about their own business, and so on. “Being there” is really important… and yet I’m wondering, are we actually connecting across ideas and opportunities that are career related? You’ve got me thinking….

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      CV – thanks for your comments. I think both components play a part. Not taking advantage of an opportunity to be present either physically or virtually is clearly key. But also when we are “there” I wonder if we are not sufficiently professionally assertive. What primary message do we deliver? Just some thoughts – so would love to hear from everyone else.

  6. Diane Danielson/CEO, Downtown Women's Club

    Chiming in from the US … Completely agree with your thoughts about women being less strategic. Women were handed this gift of social media. It empowers good communicators (i.e. women), but only if used strategically. I’ve spent the past 5 years trying to convince businesswomen that social networking is not a “fad” and that it will help them level the playing field. Ironically, the group that’s leveraging it the most are the Stay at Home Moms. They are bringing corporations to a stand still (i.e. the Motrin Moms) and are now getting paid for their opinions. Meanwhile, businesswomen who don’t have social media as part of their day job continue to say that they “have no time for it.” Are you seeing that in the UK?

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Diane – your chimes are very welcome! Thank you! I’ve read of course about Mommy blogging in the US and how successful it has become! The “mumpreneur” phenomenum does exist in Europe – possibly not quite to the same degree – but significant nevertheless . The irony on both sides of the Atlantic is interesting. Stay- at- home Mums are harnessing social media to advance themselves professionally, while corporate women seem to be too busy! Makes you wonder what will happen when Mums re-enter the work place – will it be in corporate roles or as entrepreneurs?

  7. Anne Egros

    Hi Dorothy,
    I agree that corporate world and small business owners have different attitudes regarding networking. In the corporate world the executive suite is dominated by men so in most countries, not all, networking among peers means business and helping each other to climb the career ladder, not social.

    Women in corporations are looking for emotional support from peers more than helping on self promotion (otherwise more women would be CEOs).

    For small business owners, each contact can be an opportunity to get support, test ideas, means at the end doing more business. Good networking practice is not about selling, it is about telling compelling stories to find common things to share with potential clients, business partners or just friends . Why not mixing social and business goals ? See you tomorrow to check our respective networking styles.

  8. Anne Perschel

    Dorothy – Thanks for challenging the idea that women are not strategic networkers. You do a service by getting us to think about his very important issue.

    Women are wonderful at weaving webs of people together. We are less good at making the “courageous ask,” as my colleague Victoria Waterman (Leading Women) calls it. We have difficulty asking for something on our own behalf, especially when the thing we are asking for implies that we might just think of ourselves as competent or even worse wanting a powerful role, assignment or connection.

    I love the idea of “As-King” presented in a LinkedIn discussion. The writer suggests we try feeling we are such when we ask, thereby as-king in a way that commands (a tough word to write as a woman) a “Yes” in response. (Truth is I have trouble writing that last sentence. I am a woman. Treat myself like royalty? I don’t think so.)

    But here’s an example of a man who was beyond good at As-King. Brian was a plant manager in Canada who was returned to the states (demoted) to an outlier role because he was neither a very good manager or a nice person and his drinking was causing problems. After the demotion, fe was obsessed with returning to his former status and running a large organization with P & L responsibility. He, as king, told Melanie, that he would like to come by her office every two weeks so he could be seen in the hallways where the powerful people worked. No need to read that line again. You read it right the first time. Why Melanie said yes I do not know. But she did and he got that powerful role.

    Last point. There is also a double bind for women. We are often perceived as too bold and aggressive when we ask with and for something of power. We are still supposed to wait to be asked to dance. We can break that rule together. Let’a ask a powerful man to dance and then invite all the talented women to join us. Let’s DANCE!

    Your’s truly – As-King, aka@bizshrink

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      HI Anne – many thanks for excellent input. You have raised so many great points that all contribute to the over all and complex explanation of why women do not come onto the radar of C-level executive search professionals and CEOs. Lack of self belief, fear of rejection and concern that that being assertive will be perceived as somehow “unfeminine” all have to figure in the final analysis. However, as An de Jonghe suggests, I believe that women have to take responsibility and can and could step up if they choose to!. They have the basic tools to tap into – they just don’t understand that properly( my knowing thyself theory!) . These are all learned skills which can be acquired! Great to see you leading the way!


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