Network like a woman
“You need to network more”
As an introvert, let me make this clear: I hate networking.
It feels pointless, superficial, false. Let’s talk, because at some unspecified time in future one of us might want something from the other and it’ll be ok because we met once? No thanks.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I’ve had a couple of different women talk to me recently about spinning up professional women’s networks of various types. My initial reaction has been scepticism… please, not another networking opportunity. What do you expect to actually achieve?
But turn away from the traditional stereotypes of men in suits shaking hands on the golf course and I found that actually I am an active and willing participant in some very different types of networks, and one reigns supreme: the school WhatsApp Group. I’m not even going to pretend this isn’t at least 90% mums, and it’s the absolute archetype of a community network, which is, almost without fail, a women-dominated structure. Once you start looking, you see them everywhere in communities - extended family groups, community volunteering, neighbourhood groups, church groups, community activist groups. Even when men are present in larger numbers, women dominate the conversation. Entire local communities are built on the backs of these informal networks of predominantly-women, but they are rarely seen or recognised in work environments.
Community networks are living, active things. They are built on the currency of women: time, effort, and emotional labour. To be part of these networks is to be present in them and participate, and to participate means to both give and receive in that time, effort and emotional labour.
Information flows fast in these groups. Whether you need a last-minute Spiderman costume for a 7 year old or a plumber or a parking spot or a recommendation for how to deal with mice or teething toddlers or planning permission… there’s nothing the school WhatsApp group can’t answer. And they make things happen - school summer fairs, community street parties, keeping the local library open, and of course endless bake-sales for endless good causes. These communities are self-organising, without a formal authority, where individuals are self-sacrificing for the greater good, and able to recognise and tackle the biggest problems facing their communities. They can easily have dozens, if not hundreds of members yet still somehow manage to take action swiftly.
Despite their effectiveness and importance to healthy local communities and societies, these female-dominated networking groups are often painted as the complete opposite. Popular narrative would have you believe that the group is nothing but gossips, rumour-mongers, busy-bodies, do-gooders, queen bees and school-gate cliques. Join them, and you will spend your time drinking tea and bitching about things when you could be doing something valuable instead. This, of course, is nothing more than old-fashioned systemic misogyny. While any network can have its bullies and bad players, there’s nothing to suggest that community based networks are any more at risk of these than business networks are.
These kinds of self-organising, highly-connected behaviours are highly sought-after and encouraged in companies and work situations. But the fundamental drivers of these networks are so very different, they struggle to be maintained in a work environment. Networks of women in communities are intrinsically motivated through a different kind of power dynamic, which the masculine world of work finds hard to understand. Information is not traded for positional advantage, but used to strengthen relationships. Your “status” in the network is determined by the quantity and quality of your relationships, and the time and effort invested into the network. The result is women are highly motivated and rewarded for being the most helpful, the most supportive, and always abreast of the latest local news. Time and effort invested in and for the community is noticed and noted, and strengthens the social contract that binds everything together.
In an office environment, women are actively coached to not make those social contract micropayments of time and effort that work so well in women’s networks. We’re told to walk away from “office housework” such as taking meeting notes, clearing up stray coffee mugs and organising team socials if you want to get ahead. And admittedly, it takes a trained eye to see that the endless chit-chat, platitudes, affirmations and questions-that-could-have-been-googled are actually about strengthening relationships and communication pathways, rather than wasting time. Productivity paranoia - exacerbated by remote work - makes these kinds of “wasteful” interactions difficult in a work environment, often squeezed into forced and unnatural “team bonding” or “social connection” exercises. The result is that professional networks are brittle and fragile, struggling to find their rhythm in remote and hybrid environments, while community networks are resilient and strong, able to function across multiple channels with a dispersed membership who often don’t spend much time together physically and are often on different timetables.
These community-network behaviours are so contrary to what we consider to be professional, that even when women actively create networks of women within companies or associated with work, we step away from the kinds of behaviours that serve us so well in social and community settings. We put our game faces on, we are careful to not complain too much or be too emotional or lacking in objectivity. Again, not without reason - women are not significantly less likely to show gender-bias than men. And the women who discuss setting these groups up are very careful and explicit to make sure that everyone knows this is a professional network, not like, you know, those other networks where women hang out, being all woman-y and not serious or business-like. The result is that we leave behind some of our greatest strengths… I don’t think anyone in their right minds would encourage their teams to gossip, and yet, perhaps the misogynistic overtones are causing us to miss out on something valuable.
But above all, I wonder if the real reason is that women know that companies don’t really deserve this level of investment. The emotional labour of staying present and engaged in community networks is hard (today is a quiet day, and I am not a strong community networker, but I still count 50 messages from 6 group chats). We do it because of centuries of social conditioning, societal expectations and an incredibly strong social contract gives us no other option if we want to take our places in society. In return, we get to meet people, ask favours, reliably get help when we need it most, and above all, make friends. I am a fringe member of most of my community networks and play only small roles. And yet, in these economically uncertain times, I know that the social contract with the group will not permit my membership of the network to be summarily and arbitrarily ended, which is not something many people can say of their employers these days.
Still, as I reflect on the loose group of people I’ve stayed in touch with professionally, I can’t help but reflect on how I’ve ended up maintaining those relationships through more feminine styles of networking. So here’s my suggestion to all the women out there: if you struggle to network, then think about building and participating in communities instead.