27 September 2023

Not working: Why pandemic networking is even harder for women

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Caroline Kitchener* says during the pandemic, the only place networking can happen is via a screen, which is bad news for women.

The first step to making a new professional connection can be a little awkward.

Usually, you start by reaching out over email.

You might agonise over the acceptable number of exclamation points — or double check the spelling of words you have spelled successfully many times before.

You read the email at least three times before you hit send.

It’s awful and anxiety inducing.

But then it gets better.

The object of your inquiry either doesn’t respond — at which time you can forget the whole thing ever happened — or they accept your oh-so-casual invitation to coffee.

Chances are, the two of you spend some time getting to know each other, hopefully talking and laughing about at least a few things that have nothing to do with work.

Now though, that can’t happen.

In the middle of a pandemic, the only place networking can happen is across a screen: over email, on the phone, or on a video platform like Zoom.

This is bad news for women.

Studies show that women and men network differently.

While men are quicker to ask for favours from a wider range of connections, women prioritise building a relationship with professional contacts, says Marjo-Riitta Diehl, a professor of organisational behaviour at the EBS Business School in Germany.

When women network, Diehl says, they are particularly concerned with “relational morality” — not wanting to ask for something without knowing when and how they can do something for the person in return.

Women tend to make a request only after they’ve had a chance to forge a deeper connection.

“For women, this idea of reciprocity … is very important,” said Diehl.

It’s hard to forge a deeper connection on Zoom, particularly if you’re trying to network with someone you’ve never met.

While an hour of casual banter with a stranger will always be a hard sell, that kind of interaction feels especially hard to justify when it has to happen across a screen.

This puts women at a professional disadvantage.

While a man is more likely to reach out to a contact with a quick request, women may default to a “relationship building” call, which is far less effective over phone or video.

They might also avoid the whole situation altogether, waiting until they can meet the person face to face.

When you’re networking with someone you don’t know that well, it’s important to be “informal”, said speech therapist Marsha Pinto.

She’s learned to ask new contacts about where they grew up, she says, always looking for ways to form an “emotional attachment”.

“If people get those kinds of questions online though, and they’ve never met you before, they’re thinking, ‘Who is this creeper?’” she says.

“It’s much harder to do if you’re not in person.”

In more normal times, Kelsey Byers, a biology postdoctoral student at the University of Cambridge, does the majority of her networking at conferences she attends two or three times a year.

Before the conference gets started, she looks through the program to see who is going to be there, often emailing more senior professors in her field, asking if they can get coffee between sessions.

The conference provides an essential “structure” and “pre-existing connection”, giving her the confidence to reach out to someone she doesn’t know.

“The assertiveness, going out and making connections — it’s especially difficult if you don’t have any structure to support that,” said Byers.

Even in person, Byers struggles to reach out to academics she doesn’t know well.

It’s “unnerving” to say to someone, “Here is who I am, here is why I’m worth talking to.”

She is always acutely aware of the power imbalance, she says, self-conscious about asking for time from someone more senior.

It’s especially intimidating if you have no idea whether the senior person is open to having this kind of interaction with someone more junior, she says.

At an in-person conference, she takes advantage of the built-in socialising time: group coffees, happy hours, communal lunches.

The online conference she attended recently didn’t offer the same kinds of opportunities.

While she could hear from more senior people in her field, watching their lectures, there was no opening for connection.

On Twitter, she’s since proposed adding some kind of informal socialising element to virtual conferences.

During a crisis, everyone is more likely to “turtle up”, reaching out less frequently to people outside their inner circles, said Brian Uzzi, a professor at Northwestern University’s Management School, who has studied the gender dynamics of networking.

But this tendency creates more of a problem for women, whose inner circles tend to be more tightly connected, with various members more likely to know each other.

When relying only on their inner circles, Uzzi said, this means women have a more limited professional reach.

Still, it’s not all bad news for women, said Diehl.

Men have larger, more diverse professional networks in part because they spend time getting to know other men in traditionally male-dominated spaces — basketball courts, golf clubs, bars — now mostly off-limits because of coronavirus.

When socialising is exclusively virtual, Diehl said, women also miss out on less.

* Caroline Kitchener is a staff writer at The Lily for The Washington Post. She tweets at @CAKitchener.

This article first appeared at www.thelily.com.

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