Women cannot afford to be ‘too busy’ to network

8 March 2011
There is no denying the lot of many women has improved dramatically since the first International Women’s Day 100 years ago today. But although women are now doing better than men in school and at university, and are entering the workforce in increasing numbers in managerial roles, there is still nowhere near equal representation at the highest levels of business. The long awaited report by Lord Davies has not only called for more women on boards, but also for more women on the executive committees of large organisations. Certainly there are more women in CPO roles now than there were 10 years ago, but they remain few and far between compared to their male counterparts. So why are there still so few senior women in procurement? A host of reasons can be suggested to explain why women are under-represented at the senior echelon of purchasing. Perhaps the hard-nosed image of the profession does not appeal to women. Maybe women find the increasingly global nature of the role, which requires international travel and antisocial hours, difficult to (or choose not to) juggle with other life commitments. Or maybe it’s downright sexism in a macho, recession-weary marketplace. I suspect one prime cause is women are too busy to think about building the sort of networks that can enhance their chance of career success. Successful women who build wide and vibrant networks tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Many of the women I have coached have considered networking to be an unpleasant activity to be avoided at all costs. They don’t have time for it. They think to be good at it you have to be able to make small talk to crowds of strangers. And they associate it with underhand and unethical political behaviour. As a result they are cutting themselves off from a wide range of information, sponsorship and mentoring which could radically improve their ability to do their current jobs and could considerably increase their chances of career progression. Individuals have two types of contacts in their networks;
  • A group of friends and relatives who they see on a relatively regular basis. Many of the contacts within the group know each other and have similar interests, and as a result information passed to the individual by a group member is often known by the others.
  • A range of acquaintances who they do not communicate with very often. They tend not to know each other, and so information brought to the individual is unlikely to be repeated by others and more likely to be fresh and of interest.
Academic research shows the best type of network for career development is one made up of both groups with the support and comfort of friendship and the information and opportunity of a diverse web of acquaintances. In procurement, networking is especially important in terms of managing stakeholders and suppliers and understanding emerging themes and trends in particular category areas. It is believed up to 60 per cent of executive jobs are found through word of mouth. When an individual hears of a job through a contact they have a greater chance of gaining the job, as there is likely to be a better match between role and individual. The more acquaintances you know, the more likely you are to hear of a range of opportunities - and the more senior the acquaintances, the more likely you are to get a better paid role. But studies show the benefits of networking tend to be more positive for men than for women, due to the different ways the genders tend to build and use their networks. People tend to build links with those similar to them, and this tendency is particularly prevalent among women, who tend to network predominantly with other ladies. Since positions of power still tend to be dominated by men, women end up with fewer influential people in their networks. Women also tend to have fewer connections, building closer ties to a smaller group of similar individuals. This means they are cut off from rich sources of information, sponsorship and advice and give themselves fewer opportunities to broker information. Women tend to use their networks for friendship and support, while men tend to use theirs to get on. Successful women have networks very similar in form and function to those of successful men. Many organisations run specific development initiatives and programmes for their female talent, but although well-intentioned many of these just reinforce the women networking with women syndrome. The skills needed to build and use an effective network can be taught and learnt, but like any skills they need to be practised. Just having a lot of connections does not achieve anything unless they are nurtured and used. Being too busy to network is not an excuse, as networking increases effectiveness and therefore actually frees time up. If we are ever going to see real equality of representation at senior management levels women have to start concentration on building and using their networks. * Meryl Bushell is a business and executive coach. She was previously CPO at BT Group. She is also a founder member of The Blueprint Club, a networking group for female buyers.
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