Women and networking - career promotion or toasting with sparkling wine?

Unwarranted modesty and fear of being saddled with a debt of gratitude prevent women from networking effectively, new research says
The picture shows professor Marjo-Riitta Diehl in front of a window.
According to Associate Professor Marjo-Riitta Diehl, women appreciate networking that takes place “on the side”. Photo: Mikko Raskinen / Aalto University

New research shows that women hesitate to build networks that would benefit their careers because they underestimate their own ability to bring added value to the other members of their networks. Women also believe that they would derive more benefit from networks than the other members, leading to fear that they would end up owing gratitude to others.

“Networks of different kinds are useful for all in career advancement, but research shows that men benefit more from networks than women do. The weaker networking of women derives from factors such as the challenges of linking work and family, and that networks are often built around themes or activities that interest men”, says Marjo-Riitta Diehl, Associate Professor of Management studies.   

“Furthermore, the results of our own research show that causes that specifically apply to women also lurk in the background, such as unwarranted modesty, underestimating their own value, and fear of being left with a debt of gratitude.”

Stereotypes according to which proactive networking aimed at achieving personal benefit is suitable for men, but not for women, can also lead women to hesitate to try to join influential networks. As skilled women are nevertheless needed in business and industry, Marjo-Riitta Diehl wants to encourage women to network more efficiently. However, the ways in which the present situation could change are not simple, and encouragement is needed on many fronts.

“Simply urging women to be more self-confident and to draw more attention to themselves is not enough to get women to network more efficiently. For example, carefully planned possibilities for networking are needed, as well as people who have advanced far in their careers and who can help women to take the first important steps in creating networks”, Diehl says.

Simply urging women to be more self-confident and to draw attention to themselves is not enough to get women to network more efficiently.

Associate Professor Marjo-Riitta Diehl

Can women's own networks help?

But what does the researcher feel about networks specifically intended for women? If they work for men, why would they not work for women as well?

“Unfortunately, our research does not unequivocally support the idea that networks for women alone would work better. The reason for this is that the networking needs for women in different stages of their careers do not necessarily link up with each other”, Marjo-Riitta Diehl explains.

 “We observed that the few women who have made great advances in their careers might not find a need to network with younger women, because they have already achieved everything according to the rules written by men. Meanwhile, women in mid-career know that reaching the top is very demanding, and if they are also living their peak years, they often expect to benefit from networks and to get a good return on the time that they use for networking. The youngest women, meanwhile, may not even see their gender as something that would affect their careers. They might seek out opportunities for networking more for entertainment than as conscious formation of relationships that would benefit their careers.”  

Networks intended exclusively for women can nevertheless be useful for the development of women's working careers, as they can be sources of information about available jobs, or facilitate exchanging experiences about pay negotiations.

Women appear to like to do their networking “on the side”, meaning that the networking can take place in connection with some other theme, such as investing, or exercise. On the other hand, that is how networking among men often happens! It is important to clearly define the goals of networks and to plan the activity accordingly, without necessarily having networking at the epicentre.

“Women's networks must not be labelled exclusively as places to raise glasses of sparkling wine, because with careful planning of their goals and activities, they really can be used in creating useful contacts, and thereby to promote the advancement of women in their careers”, Marjo-Riitta Diehl says.

Read More:
Link to an article published in Forbes, in which Professor Diehl discusses women's position in work life

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