EVERY society has it – an inner circle that is easily identifiable at business and social functions.
They scan the room, seeking each other out to exchange pleasantries and small talk.
They gravitate towards each other; sometimes exchanging crucial bits of business information or shaking hands in a gentleman’s agreement to seal a deal discussed previously.
Important introductions are made and business references passed on.
Networks are known to be important sources of contacts, latest industry news, job openings, business opportunities and sources of funding.
One only has to look around to realise that these types of networks largely comprise men.
A few women do penetrate this inner circle, commanding respect and recognition from their male peers.
These are women who have influential positions in corporate, government and other institutions.
Social networking involving activities such as playing golf, having lunch and drinks after work requires a lot of time, something which many women do not have enough of.
After the normal working day, most career and businesswomen start “the second shift” a phrase coined by Hochschild, an American psychologist, to describe work women do in the evenings.
This usually involves cooking for the family, helping the children with homework and possibly catching up with their own work.
Even if a woman has the time, I am not sure how she would go about penetrating an all male four ball when they are at the 19th hole or the group having Friday evening drinks, without raising eyebrows.
Within the African context, there are some lines that a woman, especially a married one, just cannot cross.
If social networks are important for business, then clearly, women’s limited participation is bound to have an impact on their business and career performance.
It’s been found that, in sub-Saharan Africa, there are many women starting micro-enterprises but few actually expand to become formal sector businesses.
To what extent this has to do with their networking behaviour is subject to further research.
All is not lost however, as there are some things women can do to maximise on their time and network effectively, at the same time balancing the social etiquette issues.
● Making contacts in the workplace
Contacts from the work environment are invaluable during employment and even more so when a woman decides to leave full-time employment to start a business.
It is advisable for career women to think long term and realise the importance of building solid relationships with people in their industry as these could very likely be future clients or sources of contacts and advice.
Having a big corporate brand behind you is useful – it’s easier to get appointments with key people and invitations to corporate functions are plenty.
● Networking with other women
Research already shows that women generally network with other women.
As mentioned above, there are women who have made it and these could be invaluable as sources of information, mentorship and a link to other valuable male contacts that may otherwise be inaccessible.
● Seizing opportunities
It can take weeks to secure formal appointments with a decision maker which is why it is important to make the best of unexpected moments to put forward one’s case.
Without being pushy or rude one can quickly get a word in at a social function, at the mall or at the gym.
It is also important for women to widen their network by meeting new people and avoiding the comfort zone of sticking with the ones they know.
Conferences and workshops can be a good source of new contacts.
Social capital, unlike financial and human capital, is intangible and can be difficult to measure.
It is the value of a particular network, what a member stands to benefit from it.
So to be a valuable player in any network, one has to offer something beneficial to others members; it’s a quid pro quo.
So for women who want to enrich their networks, it makes sense for them to build a personal brand and offer something of value that others might be interested in.