Despite their many efforts, networking continues to challenge women. Numerous studies back up this conclusion. Herminia Ibarra’s classic study revealed the centrality of networking for male workers, indicating that many networking opportunities are organized around male interests. The male-centeredness of networking means that making connections to get ahead continues to be an issue for many women seeking to progress their careers. Fellow blogger Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes that while affinity groups have shown to be successful, these networks tend to “devolve into a group of peers who gather to gripe about how it sucks to be a woman at our company.” For Hewlett, leveraging women’s potential career boost from networks lay in seeking sponsors or mentors to provide access and exposure to the executive levels.
Apart from relying on others to provide access and interaction in networks, is there something women could do more to make their networking more effective?
I analyzed the networking behaviors of 74 women working in the equivalent of middle management across three organizations. The women were asked 19 networking questions about standard actions related to networking, including how they exchanged information, expertise, professional advice, political access, and material resources.
While over 67% of those surveyed believed networking helped in building their career, their networking actions were ineffective in helping them achieve their aims. The kinds of actions they identified as critical to networking included helping others, offering support to others, offering career advice, and supporting the career plans of others. But these actions did not showcase their talents or promote their goals.
Instead, I discovered that there were two critical actions that were less evident in the women’s networking habits, and these two actions enable more effective network exchanges that highlight expertise, professionalism, and talent.
Collaboration. While the women helped others and showed an “ethos of sharing,” they were less likely to collaborate with others on work-related projects. Only 14% collaborated on projects as a way to network, compared to 33% who supported others as a way of networking. As one woman explained, she refrained from collaboration because “she did not believe she would gain any benefit.”
Such statements show a lack of understanding of the networking opportunities offered through collaboration. Superior performance has been identified as a critical factor in career advancement. As a member of a high-performing team, collaboration becomes another way of demonstrating performance. Also, unlike helping or supporting others, collaboration builds trust-based relationships linked to outcomes. It is a powerful way to demonstrate talent and build enduring trust. Talent and trust both enhance the quality of the flow of information and resources as the basis for effective networking.
Articulation of Career Goals. When networking, women did not articulate and make clear their work or career goals. For the most part, they kept their goals to themselves. Only 4% admitted to talking about their career aspirations to others. Part of the reasoning was that they did not want to appear too ambitious or boastful; some wanted to minimize disappointment or the appearance of failure if the goals were not achieved.
Any leadership vision, including leading oneself, starts with clearly articulated goals. As stated by a recent study in the United Kingdom, “By articulating and sharing goals, learners create opportunities for interaction with others in their network (and beyond) who may share their goals.”
Networking is an activity that generates opportunities to develop your career. For women to gain an edge through networking, becoming more active in networking transactions and interactions is key. Interactions should aim to transfer as much about their skills, talents, and potential as possible. If career planning is a goal, then let others know of career plans and aspirations. This means ensuring that goals are communicated and shared. Demonstrate value to others by participating in collaborations to create opportunities for collegiality and revealing talents. Both these networking skills take practice, but these actions can strengthen the quality of women’s networking, so it empowers talented women to become more visible in pursuing their goals.
Athena Vongalis-Macrow is an academic researcher at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. She is currently researching women in leadership. Her new book Career Moves: Mentoring for Women Advancing Their Career and Leadership in Academia will be published in mid-2013. Follow her on Twitter at @Thenie1.