11/08/2011

By Christina Ioannidis, Founder And CEO Of Aquitude

The author John Gray coined the terms Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus in his eponymous book to reflect gender approaches to life. Are there gender differences in business networking? If so, how do they pan out? Are there cultural differences that come to play and impact the way each sex approaches networking?

In order to answer those questions, we at Aquitude www.aquitude.com undertook a piece of research, where we asked women their views on the subject of Networking. Our respondents were from all walks of life — corporate women and entrepreneurs and from across the UK. We wanted to gauge from them their preferred networking formats, their views on any gender differences in business networking and their ideal networking formats.

Venus and Mars are alive and kicking in Business Networking

The women who took our survey were very vocal — 74% of them thought that men and women network differently. When we asked them to explain these differences, they identified them as follows:

Stylistic Difference 1: Women are Bridge Builders; Men the Hunter-Gatherers

The participants in our survey made comments such as: “Women want to like each other and find common ground. They have a less goal-oriented approach to networking”….

“Men have no shame… If you are of interest to them they have no problem with approaching you and stating what they want. Women feel uncomfortable 'taking advantage’”.

These comments are highly indicative of perceived gender differences in networking. According to these respondents, there is a chasm in networking styles: women build bonds, men tend to build contact databases.

Whilst, in my opinion, neither approach is better than the other, very often networking activities and formats are very alienating for women. Particularly in male-dominated spheres, networking events are set up and run as male-affairs. The generic expectations are to ‘work the room’, collect business cards and then follow-up with the hard-sell approach.

For women this format is alien. To illustrate this gender difference further, I liken networking to shopping experience (one of the best examples of gender differences):

• Men go for the kill: they enter a shop, find what they are looking for, pay for it and then exit immediately. In that scenario, the hunter-gatherer has succeeded.

• Women, by contrast will not just walk into one shop, they will want to “sense” what is out there, look at other shops of equivalent clothing, mull over designs and colours, feel the fabric of the said garment(s), try it/them on to see whether any part of the garment does NOT favour their body shape, then consider what they will wear said item with…. Perhaps even overnight. With a potential second visit to the shops required.

The same applies to networking. Whilst (generally) men are perceived to take a ‘sniper’ approach to networking, women prefer to take the slow, sensory approach. When they connect with someone new, they want to start the conversation learning about the other person: over 50% our respondents stated that when meeting someone new they want to learn about what they do professionally, their role and where they work. Which is indicative of the second difference….

Stylistic Difference 2: People vs Activities

When networking, women want to get to know the person. As a number of our respondents put it: “Women tend to discuss on a more personal level, whereas men tend to communicate through banter and sport”. So, whilst the rapport-building for men focuses around activities or news, for women, it is about the person, their interests, their aspirations. The stylistic differences here are daunting….

One of the respondents went as a far as indicating that “Men do not engage in small talk. They do not form friendships. They are only there for the business or to get out of the office. They tend to be more cliquey”.

Unfortunately, comments such as the one above are heard all too often. In seminars I have run in FTSE 100 companies of all levels, this perception of the male ‘results-focused’ networking strategy leaves women cold. So, if in the game to build a network with influential women, men need to beware of the symbolisms and subtleties of their language and topics of interest. It is key to show genuine interest in the person, what they do or want and how they could help them achieve that. The generic “sports or politics” subjects are taboo and to be avoided at all costs. Women’s strong need to build bonds, causes them to avoid such dangerous subjects which have serious alienating potential.

Stylistic Difference 3: Learning vs Connecting

Our research also indicated that women are in the networking game because they want to learn about themselves. Having worked with hundreds of women in my career, women are consummate learners — they want to absorb as much learning as possible, and their networking is another avenue for them to do that. When we asked our survey respondents why they attended networking events, 68% indicated so that they ‘could learn about themselves or a topic’. Consequently, speaker events, followed by the opportunity to network, were deemed as the most appealing formats by our survey respondents.

Conversely, (anecdotal) evidence suggests that for men the ‘networking’ element overrides the “learning” approach. Their results-focused, targeted approach to networking implies that the faster this happens, the better. The speaker event is of interest more as a point of reference, and potentially part of the small-talk, rather than a focus on personal development.

Top Tips for Networking with Venus and Mars

So, for men looking to build their networking capabilities with women, it is important to consider the 4 — step process:

1. Small talk enables them to learn about you — where you work, your role, your aspirations, interests. Share these openly. It is part of women’s rapport-building ritual.

2. Engage in dialogue — listen and understand how you can help them, then work to do so. Much in the same way that women rule the twitter sphere (59% of users are female) and facebook (54% of users are female), dialogue, sharing of ideas or contacts that may be relevant are a way into a woman’s business heart.

3. Once you have given, then you can take. Once you have followed up after the event by sharing what you may deem are relevant ideas, thoughts, even press articles, then you can proceed with asking for what you would be interested in discussing with her.

4. However, beware of the HARD SELL; the hard sell is a deal-breaker for women. If you want to build further, then you need to patiently connect with her (follow up by telephone or face-to-face) and suggest that you want to connect/do business with her as it would be of mutual benefit. Suggest you want to work with her to find the most appropriate way to do that.

For women, it is key to remember that:

‘Networking’ is not anathema: it does not imply that someone will take your details and then spam you (or sell to you). You CAN be authentic and build a connection with someone new. And if they do “sell to you”, you have every right to ignore any of their follow-up or their communication. You are in the driving seat in that instance.

If sports or politics comes up in any small talk, play the game. You are not rejecting your gender’s loyalty by venturing into non-traditional fields, or areas that may be taboo. If you are unhappy with the topic of conversation, you can always change it. After all, it takes two to tango; the same is true in conversations!

GenderSavvy Networking: Blending the best of Female with Male

As with all in life, the ying and yang is more effective than one or the other. As a marketer tailors their message to their audience, being able to deliver networking formats that enable the genders to build mutually beneficial business relationships is key.

We run networking events which combine the best of both genders: facilitated networking over dinner, where participants can build connections on a personal basis, but also find ways to help each other for mutual benefit. It is only by blending the approaches of both genders that we will create the best formats for all.

After all, that is the beauty of networking: if something does not work within one context or when talking to someone, you can try a different approach the next time.


About Christina Ioannidis
Christina Ioannidis is the founder and CEO of Aquitude (www.aquitude.com), a consultancy specializing in People, Culture and Marketing Development. Christina is the author of the recently published “Your Loss: How to Win Back Your Female Talent” (www.yourlossbook.com ). The book offers a hands-on blue-print for creating GenderSavvy organisations, reducing corporate losses by increasing the retention of top (female) talent and customers.

Christina is also a sought-after speaker and she delivers interactive and engaging keynote speeches at conferences worldwide. She is a thought leader in the subjects of gender-savvy leadership and talent management, employee and customer engagement, effective product development and marketing, as well as innovation and intra/entrepreneurship. She has been invited to comment on Bloomberg TV, Sky News, Emirates News, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Evening Standard, The Guardian, among others.

Christina can be contacted on christina@aquitude.com

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