Why Don't Women Network More?
Whether you are a man or a woman, networking is hard. Who enjoys walking into a room full of strangers? What does one possibly talk about to someone who seems just as absorbed with the vegetable platter? If you are a woman, why does it seem easier to approach another woman than a man?
Raised by an overly protective father meant that I was not allowed to speak until spoken to, and certainly, my sisters and I were never allowed to speak to strangers. Now as a sole proprietor and executive recruiter, my livelihood depends on cold calling prospective candidates and clients.
Sometimes no matter how well I have prepared for a call, the most experienced gatekeeper can kill the momentum. Fortunately, several years ago, a seasoned executive shared with me how he handles these calls: He hangs up in mid-sentence – as if he had been disconnected. Then he calls back with a refined pitch.
Cold calling is child's play though, compared to networking at functions. The reality is that many of the functions are better attended by men than women. However, I have to admit that it is easier to be in a room full of men than women. Given how women actively seek for ways to bond with each other, it is perplexing that we do not carry this behavior into the business environment. An episode of The Apprentice shows Allie and Roxanne, who were friends throughout the season, spiral into personal attacks when brought before Mr. Trump to prove who is more capable.
This past year, I've attended dozens of functions from groups of 10 to 1,000, small business owners to PhDs, a small gathering of 20 high profile board members, and where other attendees have included George Lucas, Bill Clinton -- the ultimate networker, -- and Heidi Roizen, an HBS case study on networking. The toughest events have been the women-only functions. The scrutiny is so intense and the competition is at all levels: Who has the best handbag, the most successful husband, cutest children, and the most clever business idea? There is also the other extreme: The overly supportive women, which is just another form of hyper-competition. How does one network with groups like these?
Networking to me is the path to collaboration. Unfortunately, women learn early that collaboration with men is bad. Our parents told us not to play with boys because we'll get hurt. Then as teenagers, we aren't allowed to study with boys because we could get pregnant. As young women, we learned not to accept dinners unless we were willing to put out. No wonder when we enter the corporate world where it's predominantly men, we put our heads down and quickly get to work.
In order to be successful though, whether it is at a Fortune 500 company or managing one's own business, the ability to develop relationships across gender, race, and economic class does determine an individual's success, both professionally and personally. Through networking, she finds others to collaborate with, and collaboration creates relationships with other professionals who can help each other, create and exchange ideas, develop new opportunities, and of course, as the beauty pageants like to say, "achieve world peace."
Kay Cioffi is President of TexZen Partners, an executive search and recruitment firm specializing in technology and operations. She is pictured above (L) with Anne-Marie Canter of Lehman Brothers.