In this day and age, are there still good reasons to focus energy on networking with women, specifically? It's hard enough to network, period, so what reasons are there for attending events that are exclusively for women, or joining communities that focus on women?
It's a very fair question. Not only do we live in a world of #HeforShe, but most of us realize that women have—and need— important male allies, sponsors, mentors, managers, and role models. So is it outdated to think that you should be networking and reaching out to new women in your field?
At Fairygodboss, we think the answer is simple: while all of us should seek (and gratefully receive) career help from anyone who can provide it, the fact is that many women still get unique and differentiated support from other women. What we can get from other women is different—and meaningfully so—from what we get from men.
Consider the things any female professional needs in order to be successful. Outside her own talents and hard work, a woman needs support from people around her to champion her ideas and goals, which studies continue to show, may not get the same amount of attention as those of her male colleagues. Specifically, she should be cultivating three types of people in her professional life: mentors, sponsors, and allies.
There’s plenty of great advice out there about how to find these people and their value in general, so I’m going to focus here on why relationships with female mentors, sponsors, and colleagues are particularly worth cultivating.
Mentors can come in all shapes and sizes and most of us know that life in the working world is a lot easier if you have a mentor on your side. A female mentor, specifically, can fill not only advise and guide you in career development areas, but also potentially relate to you in areas that may be more difficult for a male mentor to understand.
For example, it may be easier for a woman to give you advice about how to deal with a male-dominated work environment because she’s been through the same experiences herself, or how to handle unwanted advances by colleagues and clients, or even how to deal with sexual harassment or discrimination. These are very sensitive topics and are things that you may not feel comfortable raising with a male mentor—even a very well meaning one.
Some argue that women are “over-mentored” but under-sponsored. The idea is that a sponsor is someone that does something very specific for you within the context of your employer: it could mean fighting for you to get a promotion, singing your praises to management and key decision-makers at work, and/or advocating (or deciding) that you take on certain strategically important assignments, deals or projects.
It may also may be easier for a woman to give you advice about how to deal with a male-dominated work environment because she's been through the same experiences herself. Though well-intentioned male mentors may try, there are certain things that are harder to give advice about if you haven't lived through them yourself.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that having a sponsor of any gender is an amazing—and rare—asset. These sponsorship relationships are hard enough to come by, so why would having a female sponsor be particularly useful?
In my experience, women who help other women step up in their companies typically have extremely strong networks that they are very willing to share—and these networks often include other amazing, high-achieving, accomplished women. In other words, a female sponsor may come with a built-in “Girl’s Club” (a rare counterpoint to the more common “Boys’ Club” that exists at the top levels of many companies’ hierarchies). It may prove easier to reap network effects from a female sponsor, compared to a male sponsor who may very well take you under his wing but be less likely to introduce you to his golfing buddies.
Allies (Friends & Colleagues)
Finally, we all know that women can uniquely help each other at work in terms of emotional support and friendship. These are very important relationships, even if they are not hierarchical. In fact, it is very important to build lateral support networks in the workplace. If you’ve never had a best girlfriend at work who can help you with emergency makeup or a run in your stockings, you’re certainly not missing something that is going to damage your career.
However, sometimes having female colleagues and friends at work just makes life, well, just a little nicer. We’re definitely generalizing now, but it’s probably a tad easier to break the news of a date gone bad, a pregnancy, share the frustrations of breastfeeding and other private moments with girlfriends at the office.
It’s human nature to be optimistic and believe that we live in a post-gender world at work, but biology, psychology and culture all make it natural that we look for people like ourselves when it comes to building professional networks and connections.
It’s always tricky to generalize about people according to gender because at the end of the day, we are all individuals—but from my vantage point of being a founder of a community for women in the workplace, I see clearly that many women do seem motivated to offer more support and share different kinds of information freely when they know they are among other women.
A version of this article was originally published on Career Contessa.
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