Solutions to 5 Common Networking Challenges for Women

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We all know networking is important to leadership success. Yet many women struggle with using and accessing networks. This not only holds them back in their professional growth, but could also significantly interfere with their success in moving a high-stakes or high-visibility project forward. 

There are several reasons why networking doesn’t always get utilized well by women. In my own work, many talented women still view the concept of networking as some kind of sleazy, inauthentic interaction. 

In addition to this “moral judgment” about networking, some interesting new research indicates that “gendered modesty” also holds women back from networking. That’s the idea that women are socialized to act more humbly about their accomplishments and value.  

There is an assumption that the act of networking requires you to show off, self-promote, or market yourself—things that the women I’ve worked with generally experience as fake, excessive, or inauthentic to who they are. This leads women to instead network in ways that feel more authentic—often with a focus on relationship-building as the primary goal, rather than on exchanging knowledge and access to resources. 

The downside is that the benefits of networking (e.g., access to new, needed resources) are often lost to women who use this relationship-oriented method as a means to an end. 

Of course, there are also external structural barriers to networking that interfere, such as being excluded from networking and social events in the first place. 

But what is within our power is how we perceive, use, and access the networks that are available to us, as well as actively creating more networking opportunities.

Here are five common challenges and recommendations for how to start using networking more effectively, and in ways that can feel genuine. 

Expand Your Focus

At these events, women are often less likely to engage with attendees before and after the meeting. Some call this less-structured time “white space,” taken from the visual arts field, in which the amount of uncluttered space around the image is just as important to creating a visually appealing product as the image itself. 

That white space, when people are just milling about waiting for the event to start, during breaks, and right after the meeting, is the best time for good, effective networking. Men do more of this type of networking, which leads to connections, decisions, and can even set up the outcomes of a meeting. Women, on the other hand, are more focused on the actual purpose of the event, seeing it as the primary goal without realizing all the opportunities they are missing happening in the white space. 

You can create a world of new opportunities not previously available to you at those events. 

Adjust Your Biases and Mindset

If you restrict your view of networking by using words like fake, slimy, sleazy, and self-promotional to describe it, you are essentially removing a potentially powerful resource away from yourself. 

Instead, be open-minded. You can still use networking for relationship-building, while also recognizing it as an opportunity to expose more people to what you do and what your strengths are.  

Acknowledge and Address Fear

President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." If fear of the unknown, shyness, or social anxiety is what is holding you back from activities such as attending a new networking event with people you may not know, the techniques behind exposure therapy might help. 

In exposure therapy, which is one of the most widely used, research-based treatments for a wide variety of anxiety disorders, you have to keep moving in the direction you most want to run away from: your fears. 

It works by showing you, over time, how your fears are often much worse than the reality of a situation and interfere with success. Sometimes this is best done in small increments, like starting with smaller events until you are comfortable enough to go to larger ones. 

For some events, you may be able to bring a friend or colleague along with you to ease into the situation. 

Working With (and Valuing) Introversion

Introversion is different from being shy, socially awkward, or suffering from social anxiety. If you are introverted, you don’t necessarily worry about other people’s negative judgements of your self-worth; it’s just that you prefer and appreciate more quiet inner-thought. You enjoy one-on-one conversations that are deep and meaningful and abhor small talk. 

So the concept of networking for introverts creates an image of unwanted, painful small talk with too many people in non-meaningful ways. 

In this case, the goal is to create space for these kinds of meaningful, one-on-one conversations. 

I would argue that the best networkers are introverts, because some of the greatest value can be had from these intimate, deep conversations about your personal vision, goals, and aspirations for your career. 

You Can Be Strategic and Authentic at the Same Time

Going back to that idea of our negative moral judgment of networking feeling fake or self-promotional, how do we make networking feel more genuine or natural? 

Once you meet someone at a meeting that might have similar interests, ask for their business card and reach out to them later on LinkedIn and/or email. Ask them if you can find a time to meet (or have a phone if they are not local) to learn more about their work. And approach these outreach activities with genuine interest and curiosity. 

When you start with genuine interest and curiosity about someone else’s work, the conversation flows easily from there. You are likely to identify things you both have in common, at which point you can share what you do—not in a self-promotional way, but in an educational way that is likely to also convey your excitement and pleasure at having found a common interest or goal in your respective jobs. 

You can then share any goals or aspirations you might have for your career, things you are most passionate about, projects you are working on, etc. 

The difference here is that you did not go into the conversation with a pre-conceived plan to sell someone on something you do. So the fake, sleazy, self-promotional feeling does not play into the picture. 

On the other hand, remember that for this to be effective networking, you are not setting up the meeting just to make another friend. This should still be seen as a strategic goal to expand your knowledge base of information and resources available, and to identify potential common professional interests that could lead to future opportunities. Stating this upfront is also okay to do, and may help further improve a feeling of networking as a genuine endeavor.    


This post was originally published on Psychology Today on April 6, 2019. Copyright Mira Brancu/Brancu Associates 2019.