Bridging the Gender Gap: How Women Network Differently Than Men

Updated: Sep 28, 2018

Networking is by far one of the most effective tools, when it comes to advancing your career. It’s likely the sharpest one in your business schmoozing shed, far more pointy than those speed typing skills. Networking fits slenderly in your back pocket or up the sleeve, enabling you to meet new people; exchange ideas; and open up new avenues for collaboration and business development, all at the flick of a switch.

Yet for a variety of reasons, women tend to hide their networking skills deep in the hidden pockets of their totes and briefcases, instead of making it more accessible and a priority. In fact, they spend much less time exploring opportunities at business and networking events compared to their male counterparts.

Even when they gather up the guts to ditch the same ‘ole hors d'oeuvres and join the mini circle of awkward intros, women approach networking differently than men. This ‘difference’ very much impacts what they get out of each and every business exchange, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Below we’ll look at the reasons why women cultivate this different approach to networking, its benefits, and the downsides that may come as a result. And hopefully, you’ll learn how to better use this sharp, sleek tool at your next event.

Avoiding Awkward

Women often choose to avoid dealing with potentially uncomfortable situations. Why risk feeling anxious and icky if you don’t have to? For instance, they refrain from circumstances that could invoke inappropriate behavior from their male colleagues or partaking in gossip that might end up being detrimental to work relationships. Many women also tend to skip afterwork networking events because they need to be at home taking care of their kids.

A Blast From the Past

Another deep-rooted reason in how women and men differ when it comes to networking stems from their childhood upbringing. While little girls are praised for sitting still and doing what they’re told, boys are expected to be loud and wild. Just look at the boys who became wolves of Wall Street. They’re aggressive, money hungry, network-savvy men. As such, the polite and quiet girl of today grows up to become the 'considerate' woman of tomorrow, who unfortunately lets herself be silenced and talked over in business meetings.

Risk aversion is another point where girls already come with the disadvantage, darn it! Boys are told to be brave, and girls to be cautious. In the book The Confidence Code: The Art and Science of Self-Assurance (quoted by Jessica Ticktin in The Montreal Gazette), Katty Kay and Claire Shipman point out that by not taking risks, kids don’t learn how to fail. As a result, girls often end up perceiving failure as a reflection of their deeper qualities, rather than as a circumstantial consequence. And when you fail to build self confidence, you inevitably develop a tendency to underestimate yourself. In networking situations, this translates into women underselling their value and qualities, while men do the exact opposite, they oversell. And guess what? It gets them the promotion and that corner office with a view!

Connecting Personal Dots

Women tend to connect on multiple levels, sharing not only basic professional background information, but also their personal feelings. Sure, they’ll touch on their latest work projects, but they’ll also squeeze in a sentence or several about their family and even that Netflix series they're completely hooked on. Bonding over difficulties and successes they face at home and/or in the workplace makes it easier to connect with their fellow ladies on a deeper level.

For men, exchanges are much more transactional and to the point. Their feelers hide in the depths of their egos. They see networking as a tool for advancement and definitely aren’t compelled to share anything beyond their snazzy new business card.

Competitiveness and collaboration provide another insight into the gendering of networking habits. Often, the first thing a woman thinks about when meeting a new business connection is “How can I help her?” Because of this, women often avoid making relationships where they might feel disingenuous, otherwise to them this would be 'using' that person to further their own career. On the other hand, men take whatever connection they can get to climb the corporate ladder. It’s not using to them, just part of the competitive game.

Organisational behavior expert, Herminia Ibarra, suggests that keeping personal and business spheres separate is another key point where men and women’s networking habits differ. While men go golfing, hit up the bar, and have strategic client meetings all with the same folks, women often choose to keep these two parties separate. This tendency to separate business and social groups is more prominent especially for working mothers, as much of their time is organized around their children’s activities. It’s just easier and professionally safer to keep their friends to dinner parties or coffee dates and their work tribe to the office.

The Perks to the Downside of Women’s Networking Tactics

By mixing up the personal and professional ‘themes’ in networking conversations, women prove to be less strategic than men in selling their qualities. This can result in making a less than memorable impression as a professional. No one wants a bad rep from strangers let alone lose out on a chance to get a peep-toe shoe in at their dream company.

However, this approach can help deepen a relationship on the basis of a potential shared personal experience. Is the gal she’s chatting it up with also a single mom, switching careers, struggling with a competitive industry or difficult colleague? Or maybe they both are addicted to hot yoga and Black Mirror? After all, one meaningful conversation can be more valuable than a dozen scratch-the-surface kind of interactions.

A collaborative and supportive approach to networking is definitely advantageous, even more so than a competitive approach. Yet, it’s important to figure out what’s in it for you, even if you thoroughly enjoy divining out advice and introducing people. Being supportive is also particularly beneficial in environments where women have a reputation of being tough on each other. Lending a helping hand combats such stereotypes of ‘catty’ women or ‘queen bees,’ those of who don’t necessarily network with their subordinates.

When it comes to keeping business and personal contacts separate, Ibarra points out two major disadvantages. First off, it’s evident that it takes more time to manage two separate networks, making this approach less effective. Who’s got time to waste these days? Secondly, she stresses the importance of participating in conversations about important work matters outside formal meetings. This creates camaraderie and increases trust, therefore some degree of overlap between personal and business networks is vital in advancing your career.

The Importance of Strategic Networking for Women

When you let your network develop ‘spontaneously’, in other words, without a strategic intent or a method, you fall back into what Herminia Ibarra calls ‘just like me networks’. These convenience networks are too homogenous and won’t help you test your big ideas, expand your resources, or get the information needed to move forward successfully.

There is a big difference between networking and socializing and you should be aware of it, especially if you want to build a network that will enable you to overcome typical barriers to women’s career advancement.

As a rule of thumb, remember that networking is all about advocating for yourself. You should be strategic in how you communicate your value and always maintain a positive attitude. People like people that smile. And know, it’s okay to bond over common difficulties, but nobody likes a Debbie Downer. Moany oversharers are buzzkills at networking events.

There’s a lot to take in with this article, we know. So we thought a few takeaways (below) might help.

How to Master Networking as a Woman in Five Easy Steps:

  1. Set clear goals: Make sure you know what you want to get out of the interaction, whether it’s a recommendation, a sale or just some advice.

  2. Be a connector: If you can, help people find people — the returns for yourself and your network will be immense.

  3. Go outside your comfort zone: Even if it’s scary, force yourself to go a networking event alone. While there, speak to people you normally wouldn’t, instead of always going for the friendliest faces.

  4. Be yourself: Selling yourself is one thing, but pretending to be someone you’re not will lead you into embarrassing situations in a jiffy.

  5. Find reasons to follow up, then follow up: Nothing is more disheartening than a great conversation followed by eternal silence. Make sure you remember (or even write down) the points where you found common ground, and make it a reason to meet that great conversation partner again (soon!).

Building effective networks takes time and patience, but they are crucial to navigating your career growth. Sign up on Clustered today and discover a better way of forging exciting professional relationships with other rockstar women.