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Networking and Women

“ I will be the most memorable woman in the room!”

Beginning a new year for me is always an exercise in the positive and the possible. We have had our moment to contemplate how our country and, in fact, the world might have looked with the first woman president of the United States setting the tone as the leader of the free world. That time has passed and we now must look at the world as it is. And it is — at least in the workplace — still a man’s world.

My personal passion is workplace diversity and, specifically, shattering the glass ceiling that has hindered the progress of women into leadership positions. True, we have made some progress and cracks are appearing with greater frequency in that ceiling. The first female candidate of a major U.S. political party certainly widened cracks. But the ceiling still isn’t shattered.

The business world has not yet fully embraced women in the C-suite, nor in the boardroom, nor in any significant way, most industries. Women are still looking up at that glass ceiling.

Nationally, in the boardroom female representation is only 17.9%. When you look at boards, you still see a cadre of senior and retired male executives. According to Women in Technology, a nonprofit group in Falls Church, VA, 25% of the 250 publicly traded companies in the Washington, DC region do not have women on their boards. That figure is, more or less, borne out nationally.

Change is a very slow process. The glass ceiling is a barrier so “subtle that it is transparent, yet so strong that it prevents women from moving up the corporate hierarchy” as Ann Morrison, author of Breaking the Glass Ceiling, describes it. From their vantage point on the corporate ladder, women can see the high-level corporate positions but still are, in most cases, kept from reaching the top.

To be sure, the issue of gender balance in the workplace is gaining traction, visibility and support. But positive movement is still slow. And waiting for change really isn’t an option.

You’re a woman with aspirations for high-level leadership. You’ve got the skills, experience and temperament that position you on that track. But, you’re stuck in place as you watch men with the same — and in many cases fewer — credentials move ahead of you on the path to the C-suite.

So, what can you do to realize your goals?

You know about finding a mentor and a sponsor to guide you and provide support and visibility for managing your career toward a senior-level leadership position. But, how are you doing with networking?

Networking is particularly helpful, but did you know that one crucial difference between how women and men manage their careers is how they form professional networks?

Men’s networks are widely dispersed while women tend to form their professional networks in the same ways they form their personal ones — based on trust and first-degree knowledge. Women tend to stay in their comfort zones with old friends, former colleagues, and “safe” networks where many of us know one another. This insular approach can actually stop women from reaching beyond the people they already know, reducing the effectiveness of their networks by excluding people who could become a positive influence on their professional lives.

What more women are realizing is that formal networking is critical to their success. While these types of formal networks are taking hold in several fields, including medicine and science, women executives are often too busy to take advantage of them. We women are often so focused on succeeding in current jobs and doing jobs well, we may not think about attending an event or making networking a career priority.

I have found great success when I say “yes” to salons and other organized networking events where I am introduced to interesting people I may not otherwise have met.

Build and use a network to learn new things, to share interesting knowledge and to make deeper connections rather than just adding people to your LinkedIn network.

Here are a few rules that have proven successful to women I have coached:

  • Look up from your daily responsibilities to take advantage of formal networks set up on your behalf. Leave behind the old excuses: “too busy,” “I don’t know anyone,” and “I can’t leave the office”?
  • Networks are most useful when they’re large and involve many people who don’t know one another; a new business opportunity is more likely to come from a loosely defined connection than a long-term, tight connection.

On a regular basis, deepen a connection with someone and add a new person to your network.

Those people should be at all levels, both junior and senior to you. Ignore the old rules that say only people above you in the corporate hierarchy can be useful.

A great networker is someone who helps people connect with others. Invest in building a deeper network by developing a reputation as a person who has something to offer others. It’s not just about who you know, it’s also about what you know.

Add this valuable career tool to your arsenal then, just maybe, your glass ceiling will be shattered!

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