Is networking different for women and men? How do issues of gender play into the history of networking? Does it matter?
I believe there is a of yin and yang to networking. Whether because of history, or convention, or natural inclination, there are networking activities that are more strongly associated with women and others that we tend to think of as more in the male domain.
‘Male’ vs. ‘Female’ networking
In the female category, we have activities that might be considered more personal, ‘soft’, or even frivolous. Things like hosting social occasions (dinners, parties, etc.), remembering birthdays, and even gossip.
In the male category are the types of things we might think of as being more practical, and even self-interested. Things like business networking, attending events, and self promotion.
Networking and gender through the ages
Historically, at least in western society, the men’s activities were considered ‘more important’ and the women’s were framed as a bit superficial, a bit silly. People would have taken a business lunch much more seriously than a tea party, for example. However, even within that mindset, there was an acknowledgement that the women’s piece needed doing.
‘Important’ men had to have women in their lives who ran things on the social side, nowhere more so than in the political arena. Almost every US president in history had a wife by his side orchestrating the myriad of relationships and social occasions required of a man in that position. Those who did not still had to have some female acting as their social hostess, as in the case of lifelong bachelor president James Buchanan, whose niece filled that role.
The more things change…
Today, things have shifted. There are far fewer organizations, environments and activities segregated by gender; which is as it should be. To say nothing of the fact that gender is becoming more and more recognized as a spectrum, rather than binary.
All that being said, however, do these old fashioned trends in social interaction still affect how we network today?
Most women are no longer expected to stand behind their men and act as social hostesses. Women are now networking on our own behalf – we have our own interests to pursue and our own reasons for building social networks.
In spite of these changes, gender might still play a role in how networking works today. Here are just a few of the ways in which I think old patterns still impact our current situation:
- As more women move into roles traditionally held by men, the aspects of networking traditionally considered the ‘female’ domain, such as keeping in touch with friends and hosting parties, have become harder to keep up with and have fallen by the wayside. Like many tasks and roles traditionally performed by women, these activities are undervalued in today’s world. Men have not stepped in to fill the gap, it has simply widened.
- The ‘male’ elements of networking have come to predominate contemporary ideas of what networking is – the more results-oriented schmoozing we see in business mixers and sales driven interactions.
A need for balance
This might explain why networking has become so unpleasant for so many of us. Ideally, networking should be approached with a balance of the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles. They each bring an important piece to the puzzle.
- The female piece brings a personal touch, a human connection, and a sense of community.
- The male piece leverages that to get things done, to achieve concrete collaborative results.
Without the feminine element, networking can be cold and self serving. Without the masculine, it can be frivolous and ineffective. Whether we are men, women, or other, we need a balance of these two elements in order to really network properly.
Modern professional networking has, in my view, become skewed too far towards the masculine, often to the detriment not only of those of us who hate this unbalanced version of networking, but to the masculine networkers themselves, who have plenty of contacts but few true, meaningful connections. They might know everyone and be able to make anything happen, but be very lonely underneath it all.
Meanwhile, people who are good at the feminine element might find themselves with lots of friends but unable to translate that into professional, financial or political success.
The ideal networker is someone who can be both personal and practical, fun and effective. Someone who is empathetic and caring, but who also knows how to get what they need out of their relationships. To be such a person, each of us needs to embrace the full gender spectrum of networking.