I have been thinking about Alex Janus' post on networking (found here) and wanted to share a few thoughts and observations that have recently developed as a result of my curious googling.
As I have said before, I am not only uncomfortable with networking - I don't really know how to go about acquiring the skill of networking either. I suspect that this is one of those things that you have to develop by observing and emulating those who do it well. There are many resources on the internet, and while these are helpful, they are only a start. We all know that skills such as this can't be perfected by memorizing what you should be doing - it is a social skill after all.
That being said, this is my forum and it happens to be the written word - so I will lay my thoughts out on the page and hopefully solicit some of your thoughts in return.
Many of the things I have read regarding gender and networking suggest that men and women may approach this type of interaction in different manners. The general observation says that women seem to network by building or fostering a relationship with another person before utilizing that person as a business contact or resource while men are less likely to place this kind of prerequisite on their network.
I think that this is true - at least for me personally (and I suspect many of my colleagues as well). Many of us have expressed discomfort at the thought of using mere acquaintances to our advantage - I know that I think of it that way - and I associate the term "using" with something negative...
In fact, many of the words and phrases that are commonly associated with and used to describe or explain business networking evoke negative implications in my mind. "Shmoozing", though the term is slowly being redefined in my vocabulary - it still makes me feel a bit slimey or fake. "Pulling some strings" - well that is one benefit of a network, isn't it? But when someone "pulls some strings" for me - I not only feel like I couldn't have done it alone - but because of that - I feel undeserving.
The truth is, "it's not what you know, it's who you know" makes me angry. But that is reality. And not only that, but I need to learn that a lot of times - it can be both what your know and who you know combined. Some people are well connected and may be undeserving of the advantages conferred on them. But others (and I hope most) network as a supplement and not a substitute...
So now that I've pinpointed some of my mental barriers to networking - what are some of the practical barriers?
Well, to be quite honest, I feel like I am getting mixed messages from the wealth of resources at my fingertips. There are articles commending women for creating their own method of networking - and I think that this is fabulous (with one caveat I'll get to in a moment). If biological differences can't explain things, history probably can. It is not as if women never "networked" before their entry into the business world. But they did so for different reasons thereby developing different methods. Women were hostesses - and often they networked in their own home, in a more intimate setting.
Men, on the other hand, had dinner clubs, happy hour, and golf.
So what does that mean for today? Well, those articles commending women for saying "to hell with it" to the golf outings observe that women are simply using more traditional female networking venues - but for the same type of "business" that our male counterparts engage in as opposed to the business of our hearth and home.
I am completely supportive of expanding my network in this way (examples often cited are manicure parlor gatherings, book clubs, purse parties, etc) - let's face it - I have never gone golfing and have no desire to (for golfings sake anyhow). But there is one huge problem with this female oriented networking.
It is female oriented - to the exclusion of most men.
Granted, I know a few men who would gladly participate in a day of manicures and facials with potential new business contacts... but let's face it - isn't the point of networking to meet others in your industry? Well, we're certainly limiting our pool of contacts if we're only networking at venues that attract women to the exclusion of men, right?
Do I think that we shouldn't promote those events? Absolutely not. Networking with other women is wonderful and certainly can be just as advantageous as networking with a male in the business. But I don't want to limit my network by clinging to my comfort zone. right?
So how do I have it all? And do I have to go golfing? More importantly, do I have to develop two skill sets - one for networking with other women, another for networking with men?
I suspect that I may have to. Again, this is life - right? If I want a world where women aren't forced to adapt to the pre-existing norm while sacrificing their own ways - then I suppose I will just have to increase my skill set.
The unfortunate truth is this - because we're the new entrant into the business world - and in many cases we remain the minority - we must conform to the existing traditions in order to succeed - or at least conform in some cases. This isn't one of those "meet half way" things - and I accept that. I fully support building a parallel system of networking, but I cannot create this parallel as a replacement - that would be self destructive.
I can accept all of this, but I am still not sure how to develop the skills I need.
I can accept all of this as long as I can still daydream about a world where men must join their colleagues for an afternoon at the spa if they want the opportunity to meet influential contacts. Until then, I predict that I will soon akwardly swing a golf club in order to get face time with a client and I will nervously join the discussion of that baseball player's performance in last night's game if it means that I am there when the conversation turns to business.
And maybe someday I will see a shift in the "norms" of networking as more and more women advance within the business world.