It’s been said that it’s not what you know but who you know. And there is a long history of men getting to positions of power by leveraging their connections. Now, a new study published in the journal Human Relations suggests it’s not just because men have more access to power and face less bias (although that certainly plays a role), it’s also because men and women build their networks differently. According to the study, women often hesitate to ask for help because they don’t want to “exploit” their network and they’re too modest.
When women seek a mentor, the study says, they tend to look for someone they want to be friends with rather than someone they can learn from. Studies have shown women aren’t getting the tough feedback they need to move ahead. The best mentors will push, dare, and confront mentees, and challenge them to take on projects they might otherwise avoid.
Men, on the hand, look to form alliances. Men are willing to do business with anyone, even someone they don’t necessarily like, as long as that person can help them achieve their goals. Men understand that this is a work relationship that can be dissolved when it’s no longer convenient, not a long-term friendship. Yet women are leery of capitalizing on social ties and tend to overemphasize the moral aspects of networking, the study finds.
“I think men are socialized from the get-go to understand that mixing business and friendship is what you do” to get ahead, says Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org. “We, as women, aren’t as comfortable doing that.” Here are six ways to feel more comfortable building an effective network that you can rely on for career advice.
Ask for help and recommendations
It’s no secret that networking is the key to getting selected for stretch assignments that often lead to promotions. Yet, women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs and they are far less likely to be promoted into them. In fact, for every 79 women promoted, 100 men are promoted, according to the 2018 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.
“You know, the guy in the office next to yours is asking for help and recommendations,” Thomas says. “Remember that men are doing it every day, it is completely acceptable and they are getting huge benefits from it.” Yet, Thomas admits that it’s fundamentally harder for women to build powerful networks because women receive less day-to-day support at work and less access to senior leaders. Women are less likely to have someone coach them on company politics, or recommend them for stretch opportunities or advocate for their promotion, says Alexis Krivkovich, a managing partner for McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office and an author of the Women in the Workplace study. This lack of interaction with senior leadership is even more pronounced for Hispanic and black women, making it even more essential for women to be proactive in building and using their network, she adds.
Think of networking as a strategic tool
Be careful not to confuse friendship and mentorship when you are networking. “Write down the names of the people you think of as part of your network, not your best friends, but the people you can go to for career advice,” Krivkovich says. Be deliberate in creating that network by mapping out which person you would ask for career advice, for sponsorship, for a sounding board and to challenge you. “Understand what role you are hoping for—sponsorship, mentorship, or an ally,” she says. “Sponsorship is about opportunity creation, mentorship is about advice, and an ally equates to someone who will be your personal champion. There are a range of roles you want to have in a network to make it robust.”
Focus on work from the beginning
Although networking is about building relationships, that doesn’t necessarily mean developing a deep personal friendship with someone. Instead focus on sharing your career aspirations by talking about what you are doing at work and what you hope to accomplish. Then when you ask for an introduction or career advice, it won’t feel unnatural, Krivkovich says. “If you don’t talk about what you want to do, other people will fill in the blanks and create a narrative for you,” she says. They might assume you don’t want to advance in your career, or that you don’t want to travel for work or move to another city.
Don’t exclude men
The majority of leadership positions are still held by men and they continue to be the gatekeepers for most stretch assignments and promotions. Your male colleagues are more likely to socialize with their manager outside of work, and this creates a camaraderie that can lead to opportunity. Even in a post-#MeToo world, women need to find ways to build connections with male managers that feel comfortable, Krivkovich says. That might mean meeting for breakfast or coffee instead of dinner, she says.
It’s not transactional if you reciprocate
Don’t hesitate to ask someone in your network for help, even if you don’t know them that well. Just be sure to offer to return the favor. “Most people are flattered to be asked for their ideas and want to help each other,” says Karen Wickre, author of Taking the Work out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections that Count. “You’re not exploiting someone if they agree to help you.”
If you’re actively involved in your networking community, you’ll have an opportunity to help them or someone else in the group. “Go into an event with the idea that people are there to help each other,” says Shelly Yorgesen, founder of the Veranda Virtual Network. “Networking is about helping and serving each other.”
Use your network to help others
Women don’t always feel comfortable advocating for themselves so Krivkovich encourages women to use their network to champion other women. For instance, she says, in every conversation with a senior leader, mention something praiseworthy about a colleague.
Unlike men, women often get social pushback when they promote themselves, Thomas says. “This is why networks are so important to women,” she says. “You can ask someone in your network to highlight and promote what you’ve done without fear of pushback.”