Even during the Covid-19 pandemic—maybe especially during the pandemic—a lot of relationships are built on the golf course or at sporting events, places where, even if women are welcome, our presence can change the vibe in unwelcome ways.
Men may hold back on telling a particular story or ask us to “pardon their French.” They’re using their better judgment, but it’s not the night out they’d hoped for. Professional networking one-on-one across genders can be difficult, too. The guys generally have their own natural networks, buddies from college or high school. All other things being equal, they’re likely to throw business or a connection to one of them.
As antiquated as it seems, there are still women out there who are uncomfortable with their partners engaging socially with other women. And even without that kind of external pressure, it can be awkward to say “we should get a drink” to a member of the opposite sex whom you’ve just met, another parent on the soccer-field sidelines, or the spouse of a friend who happens to be in your industry. It may not be as exclusive as the “old boys’ club” but it’s still a boys’ club.
Challenges Networking with Women
On the other hand, women face their own set of challenges when trying to network professionally among other women. In my experience, the conversation among women doesn’t turn as often to business-building as it does among men.
I live in a community where the majority of women work. We have professional jobs, and our incomes matter deeply to our families. Yet when the topic of work comes up, the conversation tends toward work-life balance, how we’re handling working remotely, and when we’re returning to the office. The business-building part of business just doesn’t arise.
And yet networking is one of the most important things a person can do professionally. This is, of course, true for people whose jobs involve sales or business development—it’s a critical skill upon which their careers are built. But in my view, it’s a key skill for everyone else, too.
Let’s say your firm folds, you don’t gel with your new boss, or you don’t like your office’s remote work policy. Having a strong network will enable you to find a new job more quickly because the wide net already has been cast. Or let’s say there’s a question nobody in your company can answer, or you need to find a new vendor in a specific niche; having a broad network can help you get what you need and make you look like a hero.
But if networking is both so critical and so challenging, what’s a woman to do? Here are strategies that have worked for me:
Turn an Obstacle Into an Asset
Don’t try to network exclusively with men; make a deliberate effort to network among women. Particularly in male-dominated industries, women stand out from the crowd, often feel an instant kinship and are eager to support each other.
I have often parlayed the uncomfortable status of always being “the only woman in the room” into forming faster and deeper relationships.
Change the Conversation
When speaking with other women, don’t fall into the trap of sticking to work-life balance. Suggest you get together to see if there are ways you can help each other. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, you can get an outdoor drink or coffee, or set up a Zoom meeting.
Be transparent about what you are doing. Point out the missed opportunity if women don’t try to help each other. I’ve found women are often extraordinarily relieved to hear the problem named aloud.
Help Other Women (and Men)
I take lots of meetings and Zoom calls with women—and men—who may never help me professionally, but whom I may be able to help; entrepreneurs seeking capital, young women starting their careers looking for mentorship, people with business ideas they can’t organize. You never know when the next opportunity will arise.
Keep it Casual
Professional networking doesn’t have to be over drinks, which can present complicated dynamics, especially during Covid-19. Even before the pandemic, I was cautious about meeting in dark and moody bars. An hour-long outdoor coffee is neutral, and is also time-efficient. So is a 30-minute Zoom meeting. Both sidestep the awkwardness that cocktails can bring.
Be a Joiner
Join organizations intended to foster the professional development of women. I’m a member of Chief, a national private membership network focused on connecting and supporting women executives, and am on the advisory board of Women in Funds, a social community for women in the investment funds space. I also was a 2020 Fellow in the 92nd Street Y’s Women in Power program.
In all these places I’ve met like-minded women who are not shy about their ambitions and who are open to networking and helping each other professionally. Organizations like these can be especially powerful right now, as they have virtual programming specifically designed to bridge the in-person gaps resulting from Covid-19.
Certain professional networking obstacles women face may never go away. I may never be invited to a cigar night, and I probably will never want to be. But that doesn’t mean the connections aren’t out there, even in fields still dominated by men.
The key is to be intentional and strategic, and forge your own path. In short, network like a woman.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Randi Mason is co-chair of Morrison Cohen LLP’s Corporate Department in New York, where her practice focuses on mergers and acquisitions, equity finance, fund formation, and general company counseling.