Networking Matters More for Women in Academe

We need to talk about why women, usually more than men, feel hesitant to build networks overtly -- and how we must remedy that, writes Karlyn Crowley.

March 9, 2021
 
 
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A show of support for all those who love networking?

Crickets.

Eric Barker, in Barking Up the Wrong Tree, explains the silence: “The people who feel least sleazy about networking are powerful people. But those who need to network the most -- the least powerful -- are the most likely to feel bad about it. We like networking when it’s serendipitous, when it feels like an accident, not deliberate and Machiavellian.”

While the notorious “old boys’ network” of exclusive rituals, clubs and cohorts is mostly a thing of the past, the work of higher education still happens, like all work, in collaboration often built through networking. Yet “many people find professional networking so distasteful that it makes them feel morally and physically dirty,” note Tiziana Casciaro, Francesca Gino and Maryam Kouchaki in their Harvard Business Review article, “Learn to Love Networking.”

And when I specifically ask women how, when and where they network, they can’t get through the question without interrogating the word “networking” itself. It’s like an old skipping record every time. But we must move past the terminology, even if networking seems a capitalist sellout and so fake as to be unusable as a term. It’s the word we have for now, though we may find helpful substitutes, like “connecting,” “community building,” “friending” and so forth.

Most important, we need to talk about why women, usually more than men, can feel hesitant to build networks overtly -- and why we must remedy that. The fact is that gender socialization is still largely predicated on women adhering to gendered/raced norms of being nice, quiet and demure and putting other people first. Women must be warm and friendly, for instance, while also being authoritative and bold. Many studies show evidence of how women in leadership positions pay the price for defying those norms. If you take gender socialization and add this gender performance double bind, you get some hard math related to women’s advancement in higher education. The number who’ve attained the position of full professor, especially among BIPOC faculty, is abysmally low, and that’s why, as more women try to rise in the ranks, networking strategically is essential.

For most people, networking is not intuitive. Like anything, it takes skill and effort. But that also means if you want to get better at it, you can. Here are some simple suggestions -- categorized by skills, strategies, habits -- for how you can reframe and get started.

Networking Skills

Check your headspace. Remember the word “networking” (even if smarmy) is a vehicle to get you somewhere else. It means connecting with others, some of whom will be helpful and some of whom won’t. You can, in fact, network authentically. Use some evidence-based self-talk to get in a decent space before entering a networking event. If you can’t, don’t go. If it feels exclusive, build new networks. (See Angela Bowden’s TED Talk, “Dear Black Women, Let's Talk About Healing: The Power of Healing From Strength and Resilience Trauma,” and Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on your body’s effect on your mind.)

Find people fascinating. The golden rule of conversation: focus on others. Yes, gender, race and identity inform whether this feels viable and/or exhausting or both. Still, research suggests that people enjoy others who concentrate on them and ask them questions. (See Harvard University psychologists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell’s research on how people forgo food and money to talk about themselves.) This is easier than feeling like you must be a charming Oprah proxy. Not only will you learn things by listening to others, but you’ll also actually be more effectively networking by talking less. You’ll leave the impression that you care about others (ideally this is also true); people will feel heard. This fact may be a special relief to introverts. Claim it.

Internalize your shorthand elevator speech. In Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek claims, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” People want to know in a short, riveting and/or funny way who you are and what you are about. So be ready to state, “My name is __, and I specialize in or love ___, and here’s why that matters to me __.” That’s it. Practice in the mirror.

Stockpile a few go-to questions. Many books are filled with questions to ask others. And many of them do more than triple duty -- you can use them in class, in meetings, at retreats and, yes, in networking conversations. (Find “chat pack” or “conversation starters” cards.) One approach: frame conversation as a ramp-up. Start easy (weather, sports, surroundings, food); go deeper (work, friends, connections, meaning); and decide whether to go still further (politics, religion, self-revelations). Quick tip: several studies suggest asking people for advice is an easy tactic to elicit connection.

Also, read “How to Be Better at Parties.” This terrific guide with tidbits recommends expert Deborah Tannen’s work, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, which argues that small talk is essential, not superficial.

Networking Strategies

Putting a strategy to your networking when many other people don’t can empower you. Approach networking opportunities with at least one goal. Be realistic: you want to leave networking feeling good rather than inadequate. Introverts, for example, may prefer a short walk or lunch with just a few people.

Make a SMART networking plan. Set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goals. Effective networking is not random, like a bingo card or lottery ticket. Many women feel they aren’t good at “networking.” Again, Samantha Ettus in Forbes notes, “I ask women, who is good at networking, and only a few hands go up; I ask women, who is good at helping, and every hand goes up. Networking is just a fancy word for helping. If you’re good at helping, you will inevitably be good at networking. When you introduce two people, you are networking. When you extend an invitation to other women, you are networking.” Be SMART.

Channel the “What’s in it for me?” of others. Repeat the previous suggestion even more seriously. You may want something from someone else, but what can you do for them? Flip the question. What can you offer someone who then might love to help you in return? Make a mental list of the top five things you could do for someone else. Many colleges use Gallup’s Clifton Strengths Assessment for students and faculty members. Take it to assess your own strengths and learn to affirm those of others.

Networking Habits

This is the effort part of networking -- and the intentional part. It takes planned time.

Use technology strategically. Schedule a weekly LinkedIn check-in. You’re tired. Pick at most a handful of people a week to circle back to and share something small or interesting, or to say thank you or “I’m thinking about you.”

Pursue DIY networking. Don’t wait for someone else’s invitation. Have a monthly walking night, bar night, game night or breakfast. You don’t have to host a dinner, especially if you thrive in pairs. That said, people don’t care what they eat if you invite them over -- have pizza and wine and view the budget as an investment in yourself. (See “How to Plan a Party 101.”)

Build your own imaginary BOT. Create an imaginary personal board of trustees. Identify the people -- alive or dead -- whom you need to use for guidance, and then channel their wisdom. Have them talk to each other. What advice would they give? How would they network? This concept is also a great ice breaker.

When you get discouraged or overwhelmed, make a point to try out one of these ideas in a small way and find an accountability partner. Even then, you’ve expanded your circle by at least one. That, in turn, will lead to another connection and another -- and suddenly there you are.

Once you have a starter network, follow the golden rule as Mary Church Terrell first named it of “lifting as we climb.” It’s especially important to open access to networks for your colleagues in higher education who are in more precarious positions and facing systematic inequity and discrimination. A site I cite often: #BlackWomenPhds features “the accomplishments of Black women with doctorates and current doctoral students.” Share and share generously. By doing so, we’ll reimagine networking as something more freeing altogether.

Bio

Karlyn Crowley is provost at Ohio Wesleyan University. She is a faculty fellow at Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) women’s executive leadership institute.

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