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Networking their way

As more women rise up the corporate ladder, they find traditional male networking spots don't work for them.

Published April 14, 2005

Sandra Yancey is wrapped in a towel as she joins two dozen other women in a sauna at Wyndham's Golden Door Spa in Puerto Rico. They are high-ranking corporate executives, brought together by a mutual friend for three days with no specific agenda other than to network, exchange ideas - and pamper themselves a bit.

As they speak to each other through iced wash cloths draped over their faces, Yancey thinks, "Wow. This is what it must be like for guys when they golf."

She tried golf. When she was in the corporate world she felt left out of the bonding that took place on the green. She took golf lessons and tried to learn the lingo of the sport so she could contribute to the premeeting conversations among her colleagues. She also found that for her, it was difficult to work on her golf game with two young kids at home.

Executives know networking is an important part of doing business, and research and experience show men and women often make contacts in very different ways.

Experts, of course, are quick to make clear that some men network like women and some women network like men. There are terrific women golfers who network while on the green, said Yancey, founder of eWomenNetwork, and many women have a cut-to-the-chase approach.

Still, women, generally, are said to gravitate toward establishing a connection when networking, while men tend to be more direct and to the point.

"Men network to get something done so it's very linear, strategic, intentional," said Barbara Annis, CEO of Barbara Annis and Associates Inc., a company that helps corporations resolve gender and diversity issues. "Women network to build relationships and an ongoing support base."

Annis has studied films of men and women networking before meetings. The men are concerned with whom they sit by, and immediately swap business cards and check them.

Women checked the cards later. First, they would see if they had established a connection with that person.

A man could be doing business with someone for years and know no details about that person's life, said Carolyn Leighton, founder of the network Women in Technology International, which boasts 98,000 members.

"I think one of the differences is when I get on the phone with a woman, even if I want to talk business and it's someone I don't know, I want to know who this woman is. I want to know where did you grow up, who are you," Leighton said. "Men will go right into, "Look, I'm calling about a deal we talked about at the conference."'

Yancey's eWomenNetwork of female business owners, which she says has 15,000 members and 90 chapters in the United States and Canada, showcases the products and services of members' businesses. The goal is to help each other grow by using each other's services or connecting them with others who can.

During the spa trip in December, Yancey said she could get to know the women on a personal basis and learn what they were about. She could make a connection and build a relationship, key factors in networking among most women.

Men typically have one network to fulfill their work, career and emotional needs, while women have different networks to fill those needs, said Stacy Blake-Beard, associate professor at the Simmons School of Management in Boston.

"There is something so powerful and safe, and just inspiring, about being in that women's-only space," she said. "And you just don't get it that often, so it becomes precious as well ... It's this place where you can come and just be you, and you can take down your armor a bit."

Research also shows that women typically network with men for work and career and with other women for personal support, she said.

The need to connect with other women for personal support spurred Janet Hanson to create 85 Broads in 1999. The online mentoring network uses a password-secure Web site to connect past and present female employees of Goldman Sachs, headquartered on 85 Broad St. in Manhattan.

Hanson worked for the investment banking giant for 14 years. During that time, she took two years off to have children.

"When she left she felt incredibly isolated from her life and her old colleagues," said Melissa Hayes, director of 85 Broads. "She never wanted women to feel that disconnect when they left the building."

The network now has expanded to include female MBA and undergraduate students from select business programs. The organization has more than 6,000 members.

The catalyst that persuaded Leighton to start WITI in 1989 was a business magazine article about why women were not making it to the top. The jaw-dropping statistic she said she will never forget is that in the previous decade women had moved into mid management positions at a 2 percent increase. She wanted to establish a network to help women advance by providing them with access to other women in the technology field.

"As women get more and more involved in their job ... what I have noticed is that women are feeling more and more isolated, and certainly that speaks to why these groups are growing more and more popular because it gives us a community," Leighton said.

Her son, David Leighton, who is president of WITI, said corporations need to create a more flexible work environment. "Clearly, I think if you look at the whole business infrastructure, it hasn't been created as a place where women can operate authentically - and because they're not able to do that they have to shift their way of being," he said.

He says he speaks a language corporations understand: Losing women equals losing money.

"WITI talks to business opportunities," he said, "because when we start talking dollars," businesses listen.

Feelings of exclusion from places where men tend to network also have women turning to their own groups, says researcher Sumru Erkut.

"Because the upper levels of management have been occupied mostly by men they are the ones holding the power, and women don't have the opportunity to network with them," said Erkut, associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

"Some of the places people network are at the bars after hours or on the golf course in the afternoon. Those aren't the places women necessarily hang out."

One of Erkut's examples of exclusion is about two decades old. A commercial real estate firm would reward its franchises' top performers with a prize. A woman was among the winners one year.

The prize for the group: a week at a hunting and fishing camp with your son.

Did she go?

"Oh yes, she wasn't going to miss out on that networking opportunity," Erkut said. The woman took her nephew on the trip - and suggested a week at an Elizabeth Arden spa for the next group of winners.

[Last modified April 14, 2005, 01:14:09]

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