Is Women-Only Networking the Path to Success?

As a solopreneur and someone who runs a business helping people with their networking, I do an insane amount of networking myself. Over the last few years I have been out in local networking circles, and the organizations that have risen to the top for me are the women’s networking groups. I have developed strong relationships within these groups, which have also translated in a fair amount of business for me. Additionally, these women are always there for me with suggestions and ideas, introductions and enthusiasm for spreading the word about my services and upcoming events. While I attend plenty of networking events with men, I have only found a select few men who really “get it” and adopt a “givers gain” mentality. Mostly I feel that I attend co-ed networking events when they involve a learning component, such as an author is speaking or a panel presenting on a topic of interest to me. While I don’t feel I’m alone in my viewpoints, I often wonder if am I doing something wrong? Even though networking is my business, I think the answer is yes.

“Why network with just women?” you may ask. There are so many positives. Women are more willing to help each other. Women are more willing to really take time to learn what you do and what you offer. Women want to build relationships and not just exchange cards. There are more and more mompreneurs these days and women who want to support themselves. These women who don’t want to give up their dreams just because they have kids; they need to contribute to the household income along with their spouses.

All of this is great and, more importantly, comfortable. Women say it is easier to network with other women who want to support each other. Women also say there are things they are uncomfortable discussing with men. But is it best? Most likely the answer is no. A caveat upfront: it is important to look at who your target client/customer is. If you only work with female clients than making more of an effort with joint networking may not be that important for you. For the rest of us, we need to look at it more favorably and do more of it.

First of all, if you are a professional in a company trying to work your way up, there are still a lot more men in power positions. You need to be networking with them. They are the ones that are going to decide on raises, promotions and professional development opportunities in most cases. However, many companies have realized that forming affinity groups for women within their organizations are key in order to keep talent and foster professional growth. Take advantage of these opportunities but still make a point networking with your male counterparts and superiors as well.

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.”

Secondly, women do get caught up in the “friend syndrome” when networking. It’s important to remember that there is not a line between friendship and networking. "Women tend to fall into the 'best friend syndrome.' We invest deeply in our friendships and conflate casual relationships with shallow ones," Sallie Krawcheck (owner of 85 Broads) wrote in Marie Claire.

Men tend to avoid the small talk or drop it quickly and “get down to business,” whereas women do not. Due to this, men tend to have bigger networks than women overall - but not necessarily better networks. Yet there are ways these deeper and smaller networks can backfire on women. Women tend to have less diverse networks. Women tend to ask family and friends for help whereas men do not think twice about turning to people in their network they don’t even know that well. This can result in men gaining insight and advice from people with more expertise in their fields as well as more innovative ideas. Men try to find the right person to help them at the moment regardless of how peripheral that contact may be. Women turn to these “loose connections” in their network less with the belief that they should not reach out to people they don’t know well.

The bottom line is that you should be networking with people that will lead you to more business. The focus should be on business, not gender. Building a bigger and more diverse network means casting a wider net. Think “broadly instead of deeply,” according to Krawcheck. “You need to put yourself out there, but you don't have to become good friends with everyone you meet. And this is where women, in particular, run into trouble.” Over time, the “relational” approach wins out according to Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of Business Network International, “The bottom line is women spend less time networking and still get a greater percentage of their business through referrals. Whether you’re a man or a woman, focusing on the professional relationship will get you farther than focusing on a transaction.”

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