Why women are such bad networkers

Published: 13/12/2013

Francesca Steele, The Times, 11th March 2010

It’s no good thinking that hard work will get you anywhere. If you want to make it to the top, you’re going to have to overcome your fear of socialising and start schmoozing like men

The champagne is not working. The canapé is just an embarassing stain waiting to happen. You’re trapped in a corner listening to your junior from accounts complain about his manager. In the centre of the room is the boss and swirling around him are the golden ones, the anointed next generation. Confident, brazen in their ambition and male.

Women are not natural networkers. We might be more capable in the workplace, but we are more likely than our male peers to hide our talents and ourselves behind the water cooler at the company. And this failure to schmooze is holding us back. More than 50 years after the second-wave feminists smashed their way into the workplace, corporate UK is still overwhelmingly male. Just 10 per cent of board members of FTSE 100 companies are women. Some 25 of Britain’s biggest companies have no women at the top at all.

“It’s a complete scandal,” says Professor Lynda Gratton, of the London Business School (LBS). “Only the most exceptional women make it to the board, yet the boards of UK companies are full of men who are not in the least bit exceptional.”

Gordon Brown agrees. This week he suggested that companies could be threatened with “serious action” to ensure more women at the top of UK plc, unless the “completely unacceptable” gender inequality was addressed. Did Brown feel the irony as he looked round his Cabinet table to find just four female faces?

A study by the LBS found that a range of complicated factors were hampering women, including issues around childcare and a structural bias towards men in male-dominated organisations.

But one key element in men’s success appears to be their ability to network. “It’s what you know and who you know,” says Heather McGregor, director of search firm Taylor Bennett. A businesswoman’s worth can be weighed by notions of “human capital” — quantitative achievements such as education or skills in the workplace, and “social capital”, she says. But there is a more nebulous measure of who you know and how you plug into the complex human webs that bind companies and transmit knowledge. “Women tend to lack social capital. Gaining it takes time and effort.”

There are sound economic reasons for the importance of social capital – this is not just the old boys’ club dressed up. Oliver Williamson won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for his work on transaction costs. One element of his research found that trust reduces transaction costs — in other words, if you’re doing business with someone you know, the cost of doing it decreases.

Jane Scott, the UK director of the Professional Boards Forum, which brings together women with boardroom potential and chairmen of major companies, says: “This is a sweeping generalisation I know, but women don’t attach as much importance to networking. Women do their jobs in a quiet professional manner and don’t tell everybody what a good job they are doing. Headhunters tend to look for people who are visible.” Headhunters, who select most of those who fill the positions in FTSE boardrooms, are increasingly using a service called BoardEx to judge candidates. At huge cost to its clients, it profiles 380,000 businessmen and analyses their personal contacts. This is a web tool that works on the assumption that it’s who you know that counts, and who they know that counts even more.

If it’s all starting to sound a bit Machiavellian, then you need to change your female mindset, says Jessica Pryce-Jones, chief executive of iOpener, the human asset management consultancy, and author of the management book Happiness at Work. “I know one woman who loathes networking because she thinks it is deeply manipulative, but it’s about forming relationships that can be used to help others, and get help in return. You need to accept that it is a game. You are not helping your organisation if you are in the corner hiding behind a pot plant.”

Networking is not all champagne and canapés (OK, so it is quite a lot of champagne and canapés). It involves planning and research as much as charm. Linda Duberley. a networking veteran, says: “It’s loads of work and it’s not for the fainthearted or the shy. But if you like it, it’s incredibly compelling and irresistible.” Duberley, who owns a media training business called Duberley Media, was on her way to speak at a charity lunch for women in London when I spoke to her yesterday. “I have my charity work, my professional life and my personal life, and it’s about knitting it all together and joining the dots. You insert yourself at a given point, spray your card around and meet people. Then you invite them on to something else. You have to be so disciplined with yourself. I carry a notebook around with me, always.”

Pryce-Jones argues that women should be less abashed about using networks, and trying to become more visible. “It’s all about finding a strategy that works for you. It’s about thinking I can’t do the footy chat, and I’m damned if I’m going to talk about darts and drink beer. So perhaps it means volunteering within your organisation, setting up some charitable initiative that gets you noticed.”

There is no national framework of women’s networks, but more a mishmash of formal events, such as the LBS Women in Business conferences, and semi-formal initiatives. McGregor organises networking events such as an annual clay-shooting party for a mixed bag of female professionals — from bankers to philanthropists and entrepreneurs. With Sian Westerman, the Rothschild banker, she arranges breakfasts for senior women to meet over the latest collection of Anya Hindmarch handbags.

As one attender puts it: “You have to bring something to the party and a certain level of glamour is expected. But you meet some incredible women, who can be really useful.”

In a business world still dominated by men, networking solely with other women is not much use. Cynthia Carroll, the boss of Anglo-American, the FTSE 100 mining company, got the top job after meeting the chairman, Sir Mark Moody-Stewart, at a breakfast meeting in Davos — the annual World Economic Forum shindig in Switzerland. This is the ultimate business networking event, where shoulders are rubbed and deals are struck.

At board level, it is an “absolute prerequisite” to have contacts with other high-level players in business, says Helen Alexander, president of the Confederation of British Businesses and a nonexecutive director at Centrica and Rolls-Royce. Boardroom culture is key to women’s success in breaking through, she argues, and a new generation of business leaders is committed to promoting talent wherever it is found.

Alexander says: “It’s not the old boys thing that this has been in the past. It’s important to have a broad vision of the world, it’s about sharing war stories and habits and problems.”

In 2002, Norway, which had similarly male boardrooms, introduced a quota system. Now 40 per cent of board members at Norwegian companies have to be female.

A quota is not the answer, says the female, meritocratically elected president of Britain’s most influential business trade body. But, Alexander, admits, there is no simple, easy answer to bring about voluntary change in a male-dominated environment. As she says: “Recognising talent in people like you is easy; recognising it in people not like you is the hard bit.”

Cyber losers

As with many women her age, Celia Gates, 33, has Facebook and Twitter accounts. She also has a website and a blog for her cookware business, launched off the success of an ergonomic saucepan handle that she created.

But despite her online talent, Gates is one of thousands of internet-savvy women who avoid using the web to network — and limit their career as a result. According to Enterprise UK, a government-funded body, using your online social networking accounts to build contacts and promote your company is now one of the fastest and most effective ways to enhance your career prospects. But despite 84 per cent of users on the main social networking sites being female, it is women who are missing out on opportunities in cyberspace. Twice as many men as women are likely to approach an unknown contact from an online network for business purposes.

“Social networking has always seemed not quite professional enough to me,” Gates says. “I’ve often felt as if I need to give the right impression, to be suited and booted on a permanent basis. That illusion would fall if I let everyone I met on to Facebook.”

Liz Cable, a social media expert, says: “I think when women hear the phrase ‘social network’, they hear social. Men hear network.” She suggests that women do not know how to market themselves and are often slow to contact people whom they don’t know that well online. “Women are not promoting themselves in the right way. Many of them are slipping under the radar because they are afraid of people they don’t know saying no, either in person or online. Men don’t worry so much about rejection — they just go for it.”

Lesley Johnston, who teaches social media, suggests using different social networks for specific reasons. “Why not have two Facebook or Twitter accounts, with different names for your work and fun ones?

“Once you’ve got an interesting debate with a useful contact what is to stop you picking up the phone and having a real chat with that person,” says Johnston, who has herself set up joint venture companies in this way.

Lisa Tse, who runs the award-winning Chinese restaurant Sweet Mandarin in Manchester, is one woman who has embraced social networking — and seen results. She has monthly “tweet-ups” where she and her Twitter contacts meet to discuss food and business. “It’s the best word-of-mouth advertising ever.”