Effective networking is not just a bonus soft skill for business professionals, but rather a critical one that can make or break a career. Social capital acquired through networking can be leveraged in various ways and for various reasons—to gain social support, achieve goals, complete tasks, or advance one’s career—and is equally important for both men and women. But studies suggest that access to crucial social capital and professional networks is not always equitable. Professional women face unique challenges that their male colleagues do not.
Women hold only 8 percent of top jobs in major organizations and just 15 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers are women, resulting in a smaller pool of executives to connect with compared to men in similar situations. According to expert networker Lillian Bjorseth, “Women aren’t always privy to networking at the places where they are likely to get better results.” In a similar vein, Kim Elsesser at Forbes notes that women are more likely to seek out interesting or likeable contacts rather than those with power or larger networks, leaving them with circles of peers or lower-level employees. Jia Wang, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Development at Texas A&M, also notes that many women consistently report difficulty in breaking into male-operated networks, and that this challenge is “one of the most frequently cited problems facing women in the workplace.”1 Even when women have access to the same networks as their male peers, they have more difficulty forging new connections.
Bias is another roadblock many women and men face when seeking professional networks. Mabel Abraham notes that people are less likely to recommend a connection with a woman in a field typically associated with men in her paper “Gender-Role Incongruity and Audience-based Gender Bias: An Examination of Networking Among Entrepreneurs”. Using contractors as an example, she states “the assumption is that an outside contact is going to find it jarring to be connected to a female contractor. As a result, people are less likely to make these exchanges for women in masculine fields.” This type of bias can be unintentional, perhaps even grounded in the desire to be helpful to others. Anticipating the expectations and desires of potential business connections and clients isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when assumptions are made on gender alone, it can deprive qualified professionals of the opportunity to make useful connections within their fields.
Several studies have suggested that women, more than men, need mentoring to advance in their careers since they traditionally face more obstacles individually, interpersonally, and organizationally.2 Consequently, few professional women benefit from mentoring, which typically occurs at the discretion of the mentor. Traditionally, mentors tend to be men who, by and large, select other men to be their proteges, citing a certain comfort level working one-on-one with other men. This leaves few opportunities for women to work with male mentors, and because there are fewer women in high-ranking positions within organizations, there are fewer opportunities for establishing a mentoring relationship at all. Referencing a 2001 study3, Wang states that even when a mentoring relationship can be forged between men and women, “it is found to generate fewer personal and career benefits compared to those for men.”4
Thankfully, the struggles and obstacles faced by many women when it comes to building and leveraging social capital doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Women and men can work together in practical ways to make new connections and grow their professional and interpersonal networks.
Carson Mencken, a sociology professor at Baylor University notes that “the literature on job search shows that there are distinct advantages to learning about jobs from colleagues or acquaintances (weak ties) rather than from close family or friends (strong ties).” The more similarities and knowledge that overlap between contacts, the less new information will be available. Forming new connections with people outside of an established professional circle opens opportunities to glean new information that isn’t already common knowledge. This can be a useful path to take for people who have lots of overlap in their networks. Branching out and making connections in various fields provides access to tools and knowledge that a more homogeneous network lacks.
It can be incredibly useful to identify those contacts who can be the most helpful and develop those relationships rather than rely on an existing network to make connections. This path requires more time and effort, but this is a step that can be acted upon immediately and isn’t dependent on others. Similarly, a person in a position of relative power or authority might use that position and seek out an unconventional candidate for mentoring. Being intentional and embracing a heart for service can be a great way to connect with others and build strong relational networks.
Offering love and grace to our connections and colleagues extends to working against bias. Questioning the assumption that others might prefer or expect to work with a man in certain fields can be a good place to start. Similarly, consider that a woman in a professional context may need to connect not just with other women, but with men as well. Gather more information and be inquisitive about the needs and preferences of others rather than relying on assumptions or stereotypes.
Something that can easily be forgotten in the hustle for contacts is the human element. People are unique and interesting individuals created in the image of God. Everyone we meet has a unique story to tell and a wealth of experience to share. Networking doesn’t have to be principally about furthering our own careers – it can also be an opportunity to learn from others and expand our horizons by engaging with diverse and interesting people. Approaching networking with a desire to learn and a sense of humility can remove the pressure to forge high-powered connections and make the process more enjoyable for everyone.
Wang, Jia. 2009. “Networking in the Workplace: Implications for Women’s Career Development.” New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education 2009 (122): 33–42. doi:10.1002/ace.332
Kelly, M. J., “Management Mentoring in a Social Service Organization.” Administration in Social Work, 2001, 25(1), 17–33.
Wang, “Networking in the Workplace” 33–42.
Kristi is a new addition to the Denver Institute for Faith & Work and serves as an intern. Writer, artist, and dreamer, Kristi spends her free time chasing her curiosity wherever it leads. She currently calls Greeley, Colorado home.