There’s no question about it: Women have come a long way, career-wise. It’s no longer unheard of for a woman to be a top-level executive (like Marissa Mayer), or a media mogul with a compelling rags-to-riches story (like Oprah Winfrey).
However, it’s clear the glass ceiling still exists. As of March 2014, women make up only:
14.6 percent of executive officers
8.1 percent of top earners
4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs
By 21st century standards, that’s poor representation in an environment where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which prohibits sexual discrimination, among other things – is supposedly in effect.
Clearly, other factors are at play, other than the women-should-stay-in-the-kitchen mentality. One of these is the network effect – or lack thereof – among women.
Why the Network Problem?
As much as we’d like to think otherwise, the reality is this: In the corporate world, who you know is just as important as – if not more important than – what you know. There’s a direct relationship between the number of professional contacts an employee has, and that employee’s salary and career satisfaction.
It makes sense: The more contacts you have, the more likely you’ll hear a tip about a quality job lead that isn’t publicly advertised.
What doesn’t make sense is why women have poorer professional networks than men. After all, women are brought up to be sociable and empathetic, so networking should come easy to them, right?
As it turns out, that’s not necessarily the case. “Women have tended to be better connected overall,” says William Bielby, a leading researcher of gender bias from the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But they and many of their female contacts tend to work in more female-dominated jobs.” These jobs are usually at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder, so female networks are concentrated here as well.
In other words, it’s not the quantity of connections that’s the problem, but the quality. Women need someone – preferably female – at the top who’s willing to lend them a hand up the ladder.
Also, there are still the unconscious prejudices against women – even by other women. “You might tell a male colleague about an opportunity that’s very high demand or involves a lot of traveling,” says Lisa Torres, a sociology professor from George Washington University, “but not a female friend because you know she has family concerns that might make that more difficult.”
So, what can a talented, ambitious and hardworking young woman do to get ahead, when the cultural, social and gender cards are stacked against her?
Plenty, it seems – and some of them are listed below.
Assess the Quality of Potential Networks
Athena Vongalis-Macrow, a researcher at Deakin University, suggests that before you join a network, ask these four questions:
Who is in the network?
How well does the network connect (its members)?
Is there functional communication (i.e. are you comfortable airing the not-so-pleasant aspects of your day with your co-networkers)?
Who are you talking to (i.e. are there opportunities to talk to senior representatives)?
Pick Networks You Genuinely Care About
The reason you have to choose your network carefully is this: Networks are investments. It’s hard to get invested in a poor-quality network, let alone one with a mission and vision statement you can’t bring yourself to care about, even on a good day. Conversely, it doesn’t take much effort to maintain connections in a network with interests and values that align with yours.
Treat Networks with a ‘Give-and-Take’ Attitude
Be generous and genuine with your network. Share job leads as soon as you get wind of them. Pull up those who are down, and push up those who are already at the top. Share in everyone else’s successes and sorrows. Nurture your network, the way you nurture everything and everyone else in your life.
Include Men in Your Group
If you can’t beat them, join them. Or rather, let them join you. Because men are more likely to hear from the higher-ups in your office, they’ll prove to be valuable additions to your group. Also, if you treat them as well as you treat the female members of your network, they’ll be more inclined to help you climb the corporate ladder.
Be Savvy on Social Media
Pinterest might be the best place to look for cute crocheting ideas, but LinkedIn is much better for finding job leads and potential networks. Find the best LinkedIn groups for you via the site’s search feature, or check out the groups your connections are a part of. The latter might be a better option, actually, because you’ll have an insider’s view of what it’s like to be part of a particular group.
Don’t Let Go of Networks So Easily
Networks take time to build, so don’t lose hope if that group you joined still has 30 members after 6 months. Take the initiative to reach out to people, and have them join you. That way, you’ll establish yourself as an active, and valuable, member of the group.
Take Time to Network
You don’t have to set aside a networking hour every day. Simply chatting with your colleagues over lunch, or tagging along with them for after-work meetings, will do wonders for the size of your network. You may need to change your routine to accommodate more networking which is why networking, or any change for that matter, is hard at first.
Again, it’s not the quantity of your networks, but the quality, that matters. Take time to foster relationships that aren’t necessarily grounded in professional reasons.
There’s nothing sleazy about networking – as long as it’s done right. And doing it right means treating your network the way you’d treat your personal circle of friends: with respect, sincerity and a strict adherence to the Golden Rule.
Start networking today, and watch your career soar like it has never soared before!