Do women need to improve their networking skills?

By Jane O'Brien
BBC, Washington

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Should women spend time to boost their networking skills?

There is a widely held belief that women are generally better than men at developing and maintaining relationships.

But many women seem unable to transfer those skills to the business world, where the same activity is commonly called "networking".

"Part of the cause is that women value authenticity in relationships," says Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer for Catalyst, a women's business research and advocacy group.

"Sometimes the notion of meeting someone and then looking to them for help, or advice, or contacts in business, often feels just a little uncomfortable. Men seem to do it much more naturally."

Experts have various explanations as to why this might be, but they are agreed on one important point - informal networks are critical to success, and more women need to learn how to benefit from them.

"Women need to think about networking as a business skill," says Ms Gillis.

"And just as we would focus our attention on developing other skills that are important to our success, we should spend time and care in building our confidence and ability to network effectively."

'Build relationships'

But becoming a part of informal groups - especially those dominated by men - can be difficult, as technology blogger and consultant Vanessa Fox discovered when she left Google to start her own company in Seattle.

As one of the industry's few female experts on search engine optimisation, she had to overcome both professional and social barriers - and that meant learning how to play poker.

"I would go to these poker games, and I was always the only woman there," she says. "It's not that the men exclude women - they actually invited me - it's that women either don't know about [these activities], or they're intimidated.

"I think they have this idea that men can automatically play poker. But actually men can't play poker either, and a lot of women I know are really good at math - more so than the guys."

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Vanessa Fox is the only woman at her poker games

But the game itself isn't as important as the conversations that naturally develop, she says.

"They tell you what their start-up does and what they're doing, and so you get to know people. And because of my experience, a lot of these guys then want to meet up with me because they want my advice - and that's when you start to build relationships outside of the more formal events."

Ms Fox is the first to point out that such an approach isn't for everybody, but adds that she had little choice.

"I've had to join men's networks because that's what was out there," she says. "The tech start-up world happens to be mostly men, and it happens that they want to play poker.

"They're not actively saying they're going to try to find a thing that women don't like - they just want to have a good time."

'One of the gang'

Sport has also become a popular networking tool for women.

"If you can speak sport, talk sport, in an authoritative way where you actually watch it, and follow the game and you're passionate about it, it allows you to be one of the gang and gets you into the circle you can't get into any other way," says Susan Spencer, a former manager at American football team Philadelphia Eagles.

She says sport offers a "safe" subject for women to talk about with their male counterparts.

Ms Spencer adds: "If you go out for drinks you don't want to talk about politics, that's a deadly one, you're not going to do boy talk with a load of sexual innuendoes because that takes you down a road you don't want to go - it has to be sport!"

Jenn Harris has taken the idea a stage further with the launch last year of High-heel Golfer. Based in San Diego, she travels all over the country offering workshops to women who want to use the game to develop better business relationships.

"I don't think of the golf course as a man's world. I think of it as a place to learn about someone else," she says. "All the little things that happen are ways to see who that person really is - how do they react after a shot, do they cheat, do they have integrity? You can't get that over drinks at a happy hour."

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Jenn Harris says golf has greatly helped her business career

A keen golfer since the age of seven, Ms Harris cites her own experience as proof of the power of golf.

While working for a defence contractor she needed to get to know military commanders and other executives who all enjoyed playing. She joined them on the golf course, and attributes her subsequent success to the contacts she made.

"I was promoted within nine months, was put on every big project over the next two years, and later, when budget cuts were made, the clients made it known that I shouldn't be fired - all because of that relationship I developed on the golf course," says Ms Harris.

'Be true to yourself'

But employment expert Jean Martin says that unless women actually enjoy playing golf, the game is unlikely to be much use as a networking tool.

"The number one element of a successful informal relationship is that the individuals are true to themselves. So doing something that you're not interested in just to be with people ultimately creates an artificial founding of the relationship," she says.

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Susan Spencer says knowledge of sport helps women become "part of the gang"

Ms Martin is executive director of human resources at CEB, a global business advisory company with headquarters in Washington DC. She says research has demonstrated that effective networking can increase business performance by 30%.

As a result, companies themselves are looking at ways to increase networking opportunities for women that highlights their different interests.

"Rather than everyone trying to be the same, all on the golf course together, our data suggests that companies which have a lot of people with a lot of different interests and perspectives are significantly advantaged," she says.

However, other studies still often show that professional women need to improve their networking skills.

A 2011 report by the Toulouse School of Economics in France concluded that a major factor behind female directors earning 17% less than their male counterparts was the fact they were less good at building a network.

The study found that in general the male directors had much larger networks of past acquaintances, while female directors instead focused on a few strong relationships.

As she tries to build her own business, Jenn Harris attends five to six networking events every week - but says it's important not to make new contacts if you don't have time to follow them up.

Vanessa Fox says she tries to be selective.

"It is work for sure, and in my case there are some events that I know I'll hate and I just don't go," she says. "I try to find things that are a little more of a balance that I can enjoy and find valuable."

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