I had a couple of young women talk to me about gender in the workplace recently. It’s been a hot topic in the media – from pay inequities to lack of upward mobility to venture capital’s perspectives on female-led startups and more. Add that to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and I couldn’t NOT talk about women in the workplace.
So, here’s my expertise: I’ve been a woman my whole life; I’ve worked in the corporate world for most of my life; while a college professor, my favorite class to teach was Gender Communication; I speak about communication between men and women to numerous groups; and I mentor and coach lots of young women, both formally and informally.
Today, I’m going to specifically talk about women in business networking situations because that’s what a lot of young women have been asking me about. When we’re networking for clients, referrals and contacts, a lot of us are confused. Here’s why:
- It’s a confusing setting. Even if it’s a function that has a speaker, there’s always that open “drinks & appetizers” networking. So it’s a social/business setting and we often aren’t sure which takes precedence.
- What are those guys there for? Have you ever wondered if the men you were talking to were talking business or scoping out the place for dates? I have. What I’ve observed, though, is that I think those guys are just as (or more) confused as we are. They’re uncomfortable talking “business” with a woman – it may not be something they do on a regular basis. Their fallback position is being a guy in a social setting. OR, they may just be scoping the place for women.
- We don’t know what WE’RE there for. We SAY we’re going for business … but then we start a conversation with a man, we monitor his nonverbal and verbal behaviors, we intuitively feel he’s uncomfortable, and we unconsciously respond in a way to put him and ease and, all of a sudden (it seems), it’s not a strictly “business” conversation any longer. OR, we see someone across the room, that old black magic kicks in, and BAM! The whole energy changes and it’s not that kind of business anymore.
So what’s a woman to do? While it may be unfair, it’s up to us to set and maintain the tone of our conversations. And in a business setting, we have to speak and act from the “male” side of the communication continuum if we want to be taken seriously. Here are a few tips:
- ALWAYS dress professionally. That first impression is crucial. Be honest. We think we’re dressing to present ourselves to the best professional advantage, but our unconscious instincts are to draw attention. I’m not suggesting you have to wear a baggy navy pants suit with a white collared shirt and black oxfords. But I am saying that you can’t find the most form-fitting sheath that hits you mid-thigh and those killer 4” red patent leather heels you spent a week’s salary on and expect to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. If you don’t know how, hire an image coach to help you.
- ALWAYS have a “script” ready. Make sure you have your opening line and introduction ready. Don’t put anything “personal” in either of those. Be ready about how you’ll respond to personal questions from a guy to keep the focus on business rather than flirtation. If you don’t know how to do this, hire a communication coach.
- ALWAYS be business-oriented in following up. Once again, be sure you’re crystal clear about your intentions. State what business result you’d like to get from a follow-up conversation and what business-related value you can bring to the other person.
I hope this helps all you career-minded women navigate the minefield of business networking. I like networking– it’s fun! But because it’s crucial to my business , I always remember that it’s professional first – at least unless I feel that old black magic.
Okay, guys, we know you’ve read this – you don’t like following directions. We get it. So now that you know, please do your part and treat us like business women.
I’m curious to hear what my readers have to say about this – I’d love to see some comments.