By Marny Lifshen
Finding the time, energy and confidence to network can be tough for anyone – even successful business women. But women who work in male-dominated environments can find networking even more challenging. It can be an intimidating and isolating situation, and is more common than many might think despite the approximately 70 million working female Americans (38 percent of whom are in professional occupations).
A friend of mine is an environmental engineer, and a senior level manager at a huge engineering and construction firm. She shared with me about how tough it is to travel – which she does regularly – for work as the only woman on an eight-person team. As much as she likes and gets along with her male co-workers, she does find it hard to really bond with them as the way they do each other. Everything from choosing restaurants to relating to the workers on the construction site is just plain different for her. Her story really brought home for me the daily challenges for women networking in predominantly male environments.
For these women, and many others like them, building successful relationships with their peers can be more difficult. Women may be ostracized, patronized or simply overlooked by male colleagues who believe that their company or industry is no place for a woman. Some men may be overtly rude and confrontational, while others may just be uncomfortable having a woman in their workplace and avoid interaction altogether. Often they simply don’t stop and think how tough it can be to be the only woman in a group of men. Whether dealing with male bosses, employees, peers or customers, being the only women (or one of a very few) can be very lonely indeed.
If you do work in a primarily male environment and are trying to proactively network, how can you overcome this challenge?
Use your skills and abilities. Instead of trying to blend in with the guys, leverage your innate differences. Add the personal touch by asking your male co-workers about their families, their vacations and their hobbies – something his guy pals probably won’t do. Use your social skills and etiquette to shine at networking events. Utilize follow-up tools; after all, when is the last time you got a thank you note from a man?
Relate to your male colleagues. Connect with your male coworkers on both a professional and personal level. You will have things in common; you just have to find them. By taking the time to learn a little about their interests – whether its local politics, college football or high tech gadgets – you can join in the guy talk. Also, seek their opinions, insight and concerns regarding your profession, industry or company. These topics bridge the gender gap and can help you build rapport.
Reach out to the other women in your situation. There is great power in uniting with your sisters … especially when there are so few of you! Your female colleagues should become a source of support in a male-dominated company or industry. After all, no one knows better than them what you are going through. Not every female co-worker will be your friend simply because you share a gender, but you will find allies if you reach out.
Identify supportive male colleagues and focus on them. Most men are perfectly comfortable working with women. Instead of worrying about how to handle the ones who aren’t, focus on building relationships with the good guys. It’ll be obvious who they are. These men will include you in conversations, decisions and opportunities, and will be assets in your network. These men can be a great resource, as they can be well-connected and will happily open their networks to you.
Broaden your networking world. In order to meet and build relationships with other women, you may need to expand your networking to a regional or national level, or online. While it may seem that there is not another woman alive who is dealing with a similar situation, there are plenty – just maybe not in your zip code. Many organizations have been created to enable women in the same field or industry to meet and share experiences across geographic boundaries. You can also connect with women in similar career circumstances by networking online in relevant communities, getting and giving advice, seeking opportunities, and even just venting.
Whether in an office, on a factory floor or at a board meeting, women are often the minority in business situations. As with all networking, it will take time for the techniques described above to pay off, but you can succeed even in a challenging environment.
Marny Lifshen, an Austin-based marketing communications and public relations consultant, as well as a speaker is the author of Some Assembly Required: A Networking Guide for Women. She works with businesses to develop brand awareness and credibility, and to establish relationships with key audiences and influencers. Marny integrates grass-roots strategies into every marketing campaign, including customized networking programs. Marny can be reached at www.marnylifshen.com .