The phrase “old boys’ network” is a phrase for a good reason as the old boys, and the new ones for that matter, have been networking since time began. I’m not going to say that networking is an easy thing for every man to do because I’m sure it’s not and that there are men who find it uncomfortable and intimidating. However, there are some established routes and rules, some developed over decades and centuries, that men can understand and use to create their networks. For women, the art of networking can be a bit more complicated.
First, there’s the problem of learning to network. Traditionally, business culture has taught women only to be supportive and collaborative, where it comes off as bragging or rude to talk about their accomplishments. That is slowly changing, but it’s still an issue and an impediment that a lot of women face.
For many women, going to an event to meet someone who could benefit their career or help grow their business and asking for help and advice is uncomfortable. The first instinct is often to stay quiet or to downplay accomplishments, so there is no appearance of bragging. Sometimes the “nice girl” syndrome kicks in, and women agree to tasks they don’t want or with ideas that they don’t espouse so as not to seem opinionated or demanding.
There’s also the issue of how relationships between men and women are often perceived. Some people maintain that men and women can’t be friends, let alone colleagues or have a mentor-mentee relationship. Mainly if there’s a noticeable age difference or power disparity, there can be an assumption of a personal relationship that doesn’t exist.
Some people also judge women based on their looks, on their behavior, and on a number of issues on which men aren’t as likely to be judged. Do they flirt too much? Are they dressed too provocatively?
So for females networking, it can feel like a tightrope. Women have to walk a line between being too feminine or not feminine enough, asking for what they want and seeming too demanding, and having their own need for collaboration and relationships and the ways that others might misinterpret that need.
Add the fact that a lot of women tend to undersell themselves and their expertise, often feeling like an impostor or like their work isn’t good enough to deserve a promotion. The skills that many women use to create and grow a business aren’t always traditionally-valued in women. There’s also a cultural bias that often tends to dismiss women who own small businesses as having a “hobby” business or doing something on the side that isn’t necessary to support a family or as a primary income. A woman who starts a company has to have an extra ration of belief in herself because for every person who says “good job” or “you can do it,” there may be one, or more, sending a very different message. As more and more women start businesses and are successful, this is beginning to change, but it’s still an issue. Most women, at least those over 30, can probably give several instances where they’ve encountered these sorts of attitudes.
So, in short, networking can be hard. Sometimes people will brush you off or want you to take on tasks or support beliefs that won’t benefit you. Sometimes, networking feels icky. So, why do it?
Because networking gets results, according to a joint study by the Adler Group and LinkedIn, 85% of jobs are found through networking. If you own a business, bringing in new work is a function of networking, creating connections with clients and people who will recommend you is what keeps your business running and generates income. Networks can also be a huge source of support and knowledge. It’s worth building one of your own. Fortunately, there are some things women can do to make the networking process a little easier.
Do your homework before you go to the event where you want to network. Who is going to be there? Who are you especially eager to see? Work on an elevator pitch that describes you, your business, and what you do in a few sentences. Spend a bit of time thinking about each person you specifically want to talk to and determine what you want to ask. Practice and role-play the moment of the ask. How will you phrase your question? What responses might you receive, and what will you say back? While you don’t want to come off as robotic and scripted, the more prepared you are, the more comfortable you’re likely to be. You should also make sure you have plenty of business cards and a notebook or somewhere you can put notes about the conversations you had and the people you met.
Notice daily networking opportunities
Because of the nature of a lot of decoration businesses, a potential customer can be found in the grocery store, in line at the bank, or a Mommy and Me class. Make a habit of being aware of opportunities to promote your business and make it your goal to seize those opportunities when they appear. The more practice you get at promoting yourself and your business, the more comfortable you’ll be.
Figure out what you bring to the table
Networking isn’t just about gaining benefits for yourself (or it shouldn’t be if you’re doing it correctly), it’s also about what benefits you can bring to others. Spend some time figuring out what pros you have to offer those with whom you’re trying to make connections. Do you have extensive knowledge in a particular area? Have you navigated a particularly tricky problem successfully? Knowing your strengths and what you have to offer often makes it easier to approach others and ask for what you need since you know you can provide benefits in return. This also tends to speak to the need many women have for collaboration and offering support.
Just say no
Some things will not be for you. If an offer doesn’t feel right, or if it doesn’t lead in the direction you want to go, decline politely. Without anger or apologizing, say no. Same with opinions that aren’t your own. No one is required to agree with someone else if they don’t hold the same ideas and thoughts. Women are often conditioned to be people-pleasers, but a networking event isn’t a place for that. Don’t let the discussion become a conflict, but don’t feel bad for wanting what you want or thinking what you think. Just say a firm no and let that be the end of it.
Think of it as building a relationship, not a transaction
For some, networking is uncomfortable because it feels like a quid pro quo situation. You do something for me, and I’ll do something for you. Keep in mind that the goal of building a network is creating a nucleus of support and building connections that you can access again and again, not just once. So, yes, you’re connecting with someone because you think they can help you in some way and that you can help them, but it doesn’t have to be a onetime deal. While you don’t have to be besties with everyone in your network, the goal is to make connections with people you can like and respect and who will remain in your circle for years to come.
Go beyond your comfort zone
Keep in mind that the goal of networking is to create a broad-based network. Make sure you step beyond your industry, colleagues, or friends to meet people from other groups or sectors. Encountering new opinions, new techniques, and new knowledge can only strengthen you and your network.
Follow up and nurture
Networking doesn’t end once the event you’re attending is over. Make sure to follow up with those you talked to at the event. It could be by email or with a handwritten thank you note or telephone call, but touch base and cement the connection further. Also, make sure you follow up on any tasks you may have set for yourself during your conversation. If you promised information or samples, make sure those go out. Once someone is in your network, make sure you touch base regularly to keep the connection vibrant and vital. No one appreciates hearing from someone via email or phone only when the other party wants something.