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Men and women, let's celebrate diversity

13 October 2014

men and women are different

I’ve been thinking about networking a lot lately. Probably because we have our third 100 Women of Influence and that’s a powerful network which only keeps growing, but also because I attended the Clinton Global Initiative in New York recently and experienced networking on steroids.

I’ve also heard people asking are women better at it than men?

Networking, that is, but I think the question’s misleading.

No one’s better – we’re just different. If you think about it: if the workplace is to be diverse you need to celebrate the differences between us. It offers business and organisations so many more opportunities.

Our recent Women of Influence report (2014), discovered that of the women we surveyed more than 2 in 5 felt that women have fewer professional networking opportunities and when thinking about networking events, believe men are more likely to have engaged in watching or playing sport (45 percent of men compared with 25 percent of women).

Can you network successfully without sport? Of course, networking as a business skill is about forging contacts and using them strategically and that can be done anywhere.

There are differences in the way men and women engage, especially when it comes to networking, and we can learn a lot from each other.

There is research which indicates that men build acquaintances into their networks and go for a quantity approach. Women tend to build strong relationships, which could be construed as developing quality networks. A combination of both methods seems a sensible approach.

Another difference to note is that between the sexes communication is different.

One of the reasons men network with sport is that when men speak to one another, in fact to anyone, they often don’t look at the person, which is fine if you are playing or watching sport and chatting. For women, though, this can seem pretty disengaged.

A friend of mine, a woman who cycles for health and the networking opportunities, says cycling is a great way to hear about business and problem solve. “Hearing”, she says, is the operative word. She quickly came to understand that whereas women turn and face one another when they chat, men rarely do, and when you are cycling this makes complete sense if you don’t want to run into the cyclist in front of you, or worse.

It’s the same with watching sport and networking. If you want to chat and look at one another you are going to miss the play. Learning to chat and watch the game could help networking with colleagues who are sports nuts - no matter what their gender.

Charity work, exercising your social responsibility, is another way to network and, of course, participating in social media is yet another. Neither of them has to involve sport.

For those of you who are starting out, my advice is make the effort to meet and follow-up on one or two new people every week and think about where you add value to them and they add value to you.

What makes networking such an important tool is the fact that it has real strategic value. Thinking strategically about it, especially when it comes to career and advancement, is important. Women are perhaps less strategic in their use of networking, failing sometimes to think ahead about the possible outcomes for landing a big deal or securing a new position.

For the guys my advice is make eye contact with women, never assume they don’t take business seriously and, in a meeting situation or more formal networking event, don’t spend time emailing on your mobile device while you talk. It’s not going to impress.

If it’s about adding quality to your network you want women: they will, if they have had a positive interaction, recommend and promote you to more people than men will and they’re loyal.

This leads me on to a couple of other points of difference we should celebrate: one is around the having and holding of information.

Men see having information as power - they know something you don’t. Women tend to view it as something to share to build stronger networks and relationships and to support others. Both are perfectly viable attitudes and certainly one is no better than another.

What about being risk averse and a risk taker? I can tell you, banks adore the risk averse, and I’ve heard mining companies prefer women in the field because they tend to be more careful with machinery and themselves. Many women would actually say they are not risk averse, that they just take a little more time and think a little more carefully about their actions. As they say in the classics: fools rush in where angels fear to tread, bringing me back to networking and women.

Consummate at it from the time we were in the sandbox, when the boys were out on the field competing on strength, it wasn’t that long ago that networking was seen by the male fraternity as nothing more than an excuse to gossip.

Those days are gone. To perform successfully in business, networking is a must-have skill, and, ushered in by the GFC, the 15-minute-coffee catch-up has taken the place of golf and the long lunch, which, let’s face it, were just a different form of networking. 

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