Does networking make you squirm? ‘Gendered modesty’ might be to blame

Extroverts may love it, but for some people, the prospect of attending a networking event is enough to make you squirm. And if you’re a woman, that feeling of dread might be what experts now call “personal hesitation” and “gendered modesty”.

According to a study published in academic journal Human Relations, gender can play a major part in that feeling of visceral dislike toward networking events.

The feeling of dread some people feel towards networking might be what experts now call “personal hesitation” and “gendered modesty”.
The feeling of dread some people feel towards networking might be what experts now call “personal hesitation” and “gendered modesty”.Credit: iStock

While previous research looked at structural barriers such as work and family conflict, and the tendency for people to seek out or be attracted to those who are similar to themselves, the 2018 study, titled “Why Women Build Less Powerful Relationships Than Men”, aimed to address an additional layer by looking at personal hesitation, relational morality and gendered modesty. Even more specifically, women who feel uncomfortable with the exploitative nature of networking, and women who often network with lower-level peers due to lack of confidence in their own network contribution.

The study revealed that while men’s networks “can be characterised as more utilitarian or instrumental” women’s tend to be more socially oriented, leaning towards being “smaller, more localised, and community-minded.”

Discovering this research suddenly allowed me to feel seen, heard and a little more normal about my aversion to traditional networking. Though I’ve always known the importance of making an effort to connect with others in my industry and force myself out of my comfort zone, I’ve always despised the idea of networking and had assumed that maybe I was just a bit anti-social. But this research pinpointed why I (and many other women) felt the way I felt.

Historically, networking events have been developed in a way that made me feel as though I had to pretend: pretend I have my shit together, pretend my business is thriving, pretend I’m not the only woman at the table (especially if it’s a venture-capital-hosted portfolio event, where my business co-founder and I have routinely found ourselves to be the only women).

But women shouldn’t be missing out on networking’s advantages simply because the structure is off. And discovering I might hate these events for reasons like “personal hesitation, relational morality and gendered modesty” felt productive in that it felt like something I could work with.

Last year, I shared my disdain about networking events on social media. The response from women was so great that I later hosted “anti-networking” events in Melbourne and Sydney for 300 women. The people who attended came away from these events with new relationships and a genuine surprise for the way in which they were able to connect with other women with no added pressure.

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The main benefit of conventional networking formats is that they’re easy to organise. It’s easier to rally a large group of people together for a day of “team-building” activities and force individuals to share fun facts about themselves than it is to create a thoughtful, tailored event that caters to all needs and facilitates real relationship-building.

This could look like newsletters as an entry-point to new communities, virtual events (which allow attendance from anywhere and the ability to learn without a fear of having to speak up), and asking participants for their input on agenda topics ahead of the event.

There is an appetite from women for more networking spaces. But they have to be curated in a way that is well-informed, thoughtful and empathetic to women’s needs instead of the “utilitarian or instrumental” events we’ve historically had to sit through.

If you’re in a large organisation and want to network, speak to your HR department and ask to be paired with a buddy or mentor in another department, and have them establish the connection for you to learn and grow through.

If you’re a freelancer or in a smaller business, look for events run by women, which are often more aware of the groundwork needed to ensure women feel safe to open up and be themselves.

Another way to elicit value from networking includes focusing on one-on-one relationships rather than larger team-bonding exercises, which can be less intimidating to form and are more likely to be pursued with purpose. Unsurprisingly, studies also show women get more from these relationships than say, being asked to fall backwards with their eyes closed and seeing which colleagues will catch them.

But, we should also challenge organisations to have a number of different ways in which they promote networking and host events, and ensure that all individuals feel seen, heard and supported. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all, which is why variety is key.

The era of monthly Happy Hour drinks or pink cupcakes for an International Women’s Day morning tea on are officially no longer enough. More than that, though, research validates why so many of us can’t stand them.

Michelle Battersby is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Sunroom.

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