When I started graduate school almost 20 years ago, one of the first pieces of advice I received in college focused on the power of three words: networking, networking, networking. The key to professional success goes beyond books and good grades, we were told: networking is as important as the degrees you have and what you know.
And indeed, different studies show that the use of formal and informal networks is a critical factor for professional development, as well as for identifying new business opportunities. A Fortune 500 study reveals that the most successful leaders spend 57% of their time developing contacts and networks, while the average leader spends only 13%. And this data is particularly relevant for women’s professional development because, in general, we do less networking than men.
A South African bank interested in why senior-level male employees were advancing faster than their female counterparts conducted a case study and found that, while the sample had similar levels of education, experience and work backgrounds, the size of their networks varied widely. While men had an average of 50 to 70 people to turn to for advice, women reported having only 11 to 15. While the issue of quality is important, when it comes to networks, the issue of quantity is no less important.
Why don’t women in Latin America and the Caribbean network as well as men?
- Men are more likely to meet informally after work to share a moment of entertainment with their colleagues, which they use to continue building professional and personal networks. Most women, due to their family responsibilities, have much more limited time to engage in this type of activity.
- When it comes to networking, women tend to turn to their close family circles to partner and grow their businesses, while men do not hesitate to seek external partners among their networks of friends or professional colleagues. According to a global study, because of this practice, men are exposed to more innovative advice, with greater international vision and higher growth expectations. This also manifests itself in the use of Facebook and other social networks: 27% of men use social networks for business, compared to 22% of women. In contrast, women use these channels predominantly for keeping in touch with friends and family (65% vs. 53%), entertainment (28% vs. 23%) and searching for information (37% vs. 30%).
- And what happens at those tedious happy hours? When women go, we make the mistake of not talking about our career aspirations and spend too much time trying to build a personal relationship. We often feel overly ambitious if we focus directly on work or business matters, missing a good opportunity. On the other hand, when we are assertive in front of our peers we are often labeled as pretentious or bossy, rather than seen as leaders.
But this issue goes beyond developing and creating women’s networks. Especially when it comes to women entrepreneurs, it is equally important to join and participate more actively in existing business networks. For this to happen, the leadership of these mostly male-dominated networks needs to commit to making a conscious and deliberate effort to open up and encourage greater participation of women, not only in membership but much more importantly, in decision-making positions.
Encouraging women’s access to and use of networks will contribute to better professional development, greater access to leadership positions and greater likelihood of succeeding in business. And being 51% of the population, this can only be good for our region’s economies and development.