Women Find Nontraditional Ways To Network for Advancement



Summary:

When it comes to business networking, executive women throughout the U.S. are throwing out their golf clubs and joining others like them to talk shop in online discussions, book clubs, nail salons, knitting groups, and other nontraditional venues.

That's because many popular ways to network -- cocktail-hour gatherings, business-card exchanges or sports events -- aren't suited to women's schedules or tastes, say experts. Women prefer to develop relationships in more intimate talks and then get down to business, whereas men focus on business and may never form personal bonds. Since women often are the primary caregivers at home, it's also easier for them to fit in smaller discussion groups that meet evenings or weekends.

"What's happening is that the traditional white-male style of networking doesn't work for us, and we're carving out our own way of connecting," says Julia Hubbel, a Denver-based speaker and consultant on networking.

Although women are welcome in networking groups that include men, they often don't find the personal connection they seek in those discussions, says Liz Ryan, founder of WorldWIT, an online-networking group with 35,000 mostly women members. Ms. Ryan says she's monitored discussion groups used mostly by men and found "they post a question and someone gives the answer, period. Women do it differently. Their posts are like literature. They talk about life and nonwork stuff."

Here are some of the untraditional ways professional and executive women are networking with each other:

<strong>Online groups</strong>

WorldWIT consists of 70 separate groups created for women in specific cities, regions or countries. Members pay no charge to join and post daily messages related to their professional and personal needs. Typical messages include job postings or questions ranging from how to fire a friend to finding lodging for a college student in another city.

Ms. Ryan started her first online-discussion group, ChicWIT, in 1999 while taking a break from her human-resources career to be with her children. She discovered other professional women in the Chicago area who also were taking time off wanted a way to connect with each other. "I felt like a hub of a wheel, responsible for connecting all these spokes," she says. "I thought, 'Let's get rid of the spokes,' so I sent out e-mails inviting all these women to join an online-networking group."

Ms. Ryan next started MassWIT in the Boston area when she was consulting there. ChicWIT now has 7,000 members, while MassWIT has about 3,000. The success of WorldWIT has prompted companies to approach Ms. Ryan about starting internal groups for women within their organizations. Two such groups are in the testing stage. "It's about knowledge management, but it's more about creating connections inside companies," says Ms. Ryan, 44. "Women are starved for this."

<strong>Book clubs</strong>

Sarah Walling started a book club in Denver in 2003 so she could discuss new books, often about women's career issues, with other professional women. It's now as much of a professional resource as a book discussion. Ms. Walling, 30, an account executive with Creation Chamber Inc., a Web-based applications-development company, has secured two large clients for her company through contacts she made there.

"It turned out to be good for business although it wasn't created for that," she says. The reason: The women get to know each other as people first. "I believe that people do business with people they like," says Ms. Walling.

Every other meeting is now devoted to nonbook discussions because participants were talking about these topics instead of about books. "Intimate communications happen in a book club, because you are talking about personal experiences," says Ms. Walling. "I can't imagine men sharing as much."

<strong>Manicure sessions</strong>

Even though women often will skip business lunches, they'll make time for manicures with business contacts during the lunch hour because they can network and take care of personal needs, says Cynthia Tsai, chief executive officer of New York-based HealthExpo, a consumer health-event company.

She started inviting female sponsors, clients and potential clients to small-group manicures a few years ago so they could meet each other and talk shop. Going to a salon is conducive to this because "women in salons relax in a different way," says Ms. Tsai. "We know business opportunities exist or we wouldn't be meeting, but this gives us a chance to learn about each other as women."

<strong>Dinners</strong>

Professional women who work for Sun Microsystems in the Boston area meet for dinner the first Wednesday of each month to discuss their jobs and career issues. About half of Sun's 35,000 employees work out of their homes or satellite offices. "Sun Girls' Night Out" helps the women at Sun feel less isolated from each other, says Sandy Belknap, 38, an information-technology marketing-communications manager for the company in Nashua, N.H.

Attendees support each other in achieving career goals. With backing from the group, one member has taken a volunteer assignment to gain visibility. Another who needed to learn more about a new product discovered a fellow member was its product manager. "I've met women who say, 'To get ahead, you have to play golf,' but I tried golf, and I didn't really enjoy it," says Ms. Belknap. "This isn't so competitive."

While living in Spokane, Wash., a few years ago, Ms. Hubbel formed a similar group to connect executive and professional women who didn't know each other. Within three years, it had grown to about 60 women between the ages of 27 and 54 who attended one 90-minute lunch and one pot-luck dinner each month to discuss careers and personal topics.

<strong>Hobby groups</strong>

Jerri Barrett says a "Stich 'n Bitch" knitting group near her San Jose, Calif., area home gives her a way to talk with other women and pursue her knitting hobby. Ms. Barrett, vice president of customer service for HighWired Technologies Inc., a San Francisco voice-messaging company, found the group on Meetup.com.

Five to 25 mostly professional women meet Sunday afternoons in a coffee shop, says Ms. Barrett, 43. "You share information on knitting, but you end up making relationships that go in all different directions," she says.

Rebecca Palm says similar bonds have developed between the women in her neighborhood who play Bunco, a dice game. Ms. Palm, president of software company Comtech Solutions Worldwide Inc. in Houston, joins them monthly for dinner and Bunco, a parlor game for 12 players. Unlike, say, a men's poker group, the game can take a back seat to the conversation. "You talk about your thoughts and feelings and break down barriers," says Ms. Palm. "Once in a while, the game gets played."

At a recent Bunco party, a former Microsoft executive came as a substitute, and she and Ms. Palm hit it off. They later discussed ways Comtech Solutions could become a recommended Microsoft provider. "We're getting the information about that now," she says.

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Ms. Capell is a senior correspondent for CareerJournal.com. She can be reached at frances.capell@dowjones.com.

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