Date posted: 09/04/2021 10 min read

How to make networking work for women

Four-hour golf games aren’t the way busy women connect. These women in senior roles share the ways they network instead.

In Brief

  • Network in a way that suits the time you have available.
  • Greater career opportunities may become available through networking.
  • Networking is a two-way operation so you should always pay it forward.

By Deborah Tarrant

Who you know has always been important for business and career development. And while networking’s contribution to professional success is less tangible than talent, a red-hot skill set or experience for a role, ‘who you know’ is universally recognised for its ability to catalyse careers.

Meggie Palmer, founder of PepTalkHer, which has connected 60,000 women worldwide with a common purpose of closing the gender pay gap, sees a plausible link between women’s networking and equal pay.

“Depending on which country you are looking at, women are less likely than men to have a strong network,” reports the now New York-based Palmer, who previously worked as a TV journalist for Australian and other media.

She cites a LinkedIn study that found Australian women were 30% less likely than men to have a strong network in terms of size and diversity. That’s an inhibiting factor.

“We also know more than half of jobs are never advertised,” she adds.

Logically, the bigger your network, the bigger the probability you’ll have more opportunities. “Networking can make a significant difference to the trajectory of your career and how much you earn,” Palmer says.

But she also understands people who are turned off by the old transactional business-card swapping behaviour. Women, she says, tend to have better quality, deeper relationships.

“They are more likely to understand that networking is as much about giving as getting, and that each of us has a responsibility to pay it forward to help out more junior people,” she believes.

Paddy Carney FCA, a director of PwC International and a member of the invitation-only Chief Executive Women (CEW), notes a special kind of energy that comes when women get together. The greater might and power that a woman’s network, such as CEW, brings is its ability to advocate for policy change, she says. “It helps to spot inequalities and make a noise about them.”

So, might women have closed the stubborn gender pay gap with greater opportunities for networking?

Carney is doubtful. “There are many fathers and mothers of success and networking is just one piece of the puzzle, like hard work, talent, timing – and luck is a big one.”

How to network in a different way

For the extroverts among us, networking sounds like fun. But for introverts, being introduced to a roomful of strangers and making new connections – even with the social relaxant of a glass of bubbly – is akin to torture.

Carney, who this year is clocking up 30 years between the UK and Australia at PwC, says female partners at PwC regularly convene. She took up power walking with connections during the time of COVID and adds that, these days, targeted networking happens in myriad ways.

“No-one has time for four or five hours on the golf course any more. It’s not necessarily about long lunches. You can make it to suit the time you have available. It may be as quick as a text to somebody. It’s about showing you are thinking about other people and being helpful to them.”

“It may be as quick as a text to somebody. It’s about showing you are thinking about other people and being helpful to them.”
Paddy Carney FCA, PwC

Lara Ariell FCA, formerly CFO of Inland Revenue New Zealand, who’s recently signed on as the financial chief at NZ government agency Callaghan Innovation, admits she finds formal networking “incredibly difficult”.

For six weeks before Christmas 2020, she could have been out nightly “chit-chatting”, she says. Instead, she accepted four invitations from people she hadn’t seen for a while and declined the rest.

But the power and value of networking is not lost on Ariell. “You have to keep investing in your network – it’s about being impactful and targeting,” emphasises the self-described introvert.

That lesson was hard learned by Ariell whose network “shrivelled” when she was a time-constrained mother of young children who lunched at her desk and worked part-time.

Facing up to the career imperative to be better connected, she found her own way to network. “I’d much rather catch up with small groups of like-minded people,” she explains. “My network now is a constellation of people, like a Venn diagram with overlapping pieces. By catching up with a smaller group of people together, sometimes you can kill a number of birds with one stone and make the networking activity work for you.”

Lara Ariell FCAPicture: Lara Ariell FCA.

“I’d much rather catch up with small groups of like-minded people.”
Lara Ariell FCA, Callaghan Innovation

For Ariell, networking is now a serious business, involving “deliberate diarising” of monthly or fortnightly catch-ups. Typically breakfasts, sometimes after work with colleagues across the NZ public service or, during the time of COVID, perhaps scheduling a ‘FaceWine’.

Conversations with avid networkers reveal that no one style of networking fits all. And 2020 certainly accelerated the options with Zoom coffees and the rise of next-gen AI-powered platforms, such as Lunchclub, which offer members the adventure of a new connection each week.

However, regardless of the format – be it formal functions or something more organic, face-to-face or digital – clever networking shares commonalities.

How networks help in the bigger picture

Ariell is candid about the benefits. “During our back-office transformation at Inland Revenue, I leveraged my public service network in a big way because I was working across HR, finance, asset management and procurement.

“My natural home is finance. I needed buy-in from my network connections who were experts across those four disciplines, not just the finance people.”

The network impact delivered in multiples, she recalls.

“Among my network of CFOs across the public service, people were saying, ‘This is a good idea’, and talking to their CEOs about what we were doing and how we were doing it. So that network helps to amplify my ability to make things happen.

“Do I sound mercenary?” Ariell asks. Not at all.

It’s a similar story for other CAs. Tiffany Slater FCA kicked off a new career direction when she joined National Rugby League (NRL) club Wests Tigers in Sydney in 2013 as finance manager via the recommendation of a former colleague at Macquarie Group. She is now the general manager – wellbeing, diversity and performance at Australia’s NRL.

Slater points out that “networks naturally form in areas that need many hands to lift because people want to help each other out and pool resources.”

A network connection also led Jolie Hodson FCA, now CEO of Spark New Zealand, to leave her role as financial director of food and beverage company Lion in Australia to become the telco’s CFO back in 2013.

“It was an opportunity I wouldn’t have seen on my own … and if someone was looking at my CV they would have thought ‘she doesn’t come from that industry’,” Hodson says.

Returning to New Zealand after more than a decade, Hodson settled into a welcome support network in informal quarterly meet-ups with ANZ bank’s CFO (now New Zealand CEO) Antonia Watson, and Adrienne Duarte FCA, CFO at BNZ (now at Latitude Financial in Australia).

Always pay it forward

Like Ariell, both Slater and Hodson attest that, above all, networking must be purposeful. It’s a two-way interaction with a bunch of unofficial golden rules which start with focusing on “what you need to build up, having a plan, and being transparent about what you’re seeking”, says Hodson.

Coca-Cola Amatil group managing director Alison Watkins FCA says that when seeking help or advice from senior people, she’s always been surprised by just how willing they are to help.

“The key is how you connect,” says Watkins. “When reaching out, it’s important to be clear on your ‘ask’. Be specific about why you want to meet, and why it’s a good thing for them to meet you.”

Alison Watkins FCAPicture: Alison Watkins FCA.

“The key is how you connect… Be specific about why you want to meet, and why it’s a good thing for them to meet you.”
Alison Watkins FCA, Coca-Cola Amatil

Equally vital is understanding the need for reciprocity. “You give some time, you get some time,” adds Hodson, a member of Australia’s CEW and the Global Women’s Network, and co-founder of OnBeingBold, a virtual group that runs an annual conference to highlight female role models.

For women, in particular, putting a determined structure around networking helps to overcome the characteristic “squiggly line” of progression in careers often punctuated by parenthood and other caring responsibilities, Hodson points out.

So should women build old gals’ networks to speed their progress, as a counterpoint to those ubiquitous old boys’ ones?

“Gender equity in the workplace still has a long way to go in both Australia and New Zealand,” notes Hodson. “Everything we can do to drive change and recognise women’s talent is really important.”

10 tips for successful networking

1. Don’t worry about the format. Be it breakfast, lunch or a ‘FaceWine’, no one style of networking fits all.

2. “Build a network while you don’t need it, so when you do it’s ready to go.” – Tiffany Slater FCA

3. “Don’t be afraid to ask. People are more than willing to share their experience and their knowledge. That may be one meeting or it may be 10 or a lifetime friendship. All options are helpful.” – Tiffany Slater FCA

4. “Network both in and out of your circle. Joining a not-for-profit board presents excellent opportunities to diversify your network.” – Paddy Carney FCA5. ”There’s value in connections and building relationships at all levels. A senior manager might stand out as someone you must connect with, however a connection with an emerging leader or someone early in their career can be equally meaningful.” – Alison Watkins FCA

6. “Make your best impression by being yourself. You don’t have to be a certain way when you’re networking. You don’t have to be like the person you are meeting, do a job like theirs or follow the same path. It’s about understanding their approach and experience and applying it to your own life.” – Tiffany Slater FCA

7. “Time with a person who is incredibly busy must be used wisely.” – Lara Ariell FCA

8. “Receiving an invite to ‘catch up for a coffee’ or ‘I’d love to have a chat’ isn’t as helpful as being specific about what you want to discuss. A good approach is, for example, ‘I’m exploring a career opportunity in X sector and would welcome your views on trends in this industry.’” – Alison Watkins FCA

9. “When reaching out to someone you’d like to meet, provide them with what they need to know up front, so they can think in advance about how they can provide the greatest value in the meeting. This could include sending your CV and any other relevant information ahead of time.” – Alison Watkins FCA

10. “Remember, you have two ears and one mouth so when you are meeting with someone you think is amazing, use them in those quantities. You may want to tell them how awesome you are but remember you’re talking to them because they are awesome.” – Lara Ariell FCA

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