Do women avoid doing business with friends? If so, why?
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By Kristen Bellstrom
August 9, 2018

Last week, Fortune ran an op-ed in which founder, board member, and executive Mallun Yen shared her observation that women are, in many cases, hesitant to do business with friends—and how that discomfort holds them back in their careers.

In The Broadsheet, our newsletter about the world’s most powerful women, we polled readers about their reaction to Yen’s piece. Did the sentiment ring true? And if so, had the found ways to break through the friendship-business barrier?

To say that the idea is resonated with readers is an understatement. Here’s a look at some of what they had to say:

“I had never connected the dots until this story. I have built a strong network, connected many women friends and yet most of the ‘business referrals’ come through my male contacts. My female friends are more likely to support the ‘soft’ benefits: speaking opportunities, events and attendance at women-only gatherings. I recently reached out to a long time friend with a significant new position in my agency’s area of expertise—and felt awful afterward, as if I had made a massive social error. I apologized and yet still felt guilty.” — Jamie G.

“This reluctance by women to help each other build wealth is truly keeping us from advancing across the board….What is painfully obvious is that men (and I don’t believe women need to be like men) know how to take care of each other in business, while being friendly. It’s expected in a group of men….I get totally frustrated with the lack of same support from my female connections. I know it is because women do not know how to help and they have not built the connections inside their companies to refer friends.” — Anne C.

For some, the issue of feeling uncomfortable doing business with friends seems to have a generational component:

“I have been a woman business owner for many years and prior to that was a corporate warrior when there were less women present. Since not all doors were open to women from a business development perspective, all relationships cultivated were viewed as potential business relationships. As time has passed and more formal opportunities to engage in business relationships appeared for women, often with the focus on other aspects of being a women in business, a line appeared to be drawn, and it seemed it was in “bad taste” to bring up “doing direct business” with each other.” — Laura Y.

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One thing that came up repeatedly is women’s close relationships with their co-workers, many of whom ultimately become dear friends. Many readers reported that their relationships that start in a professional vein, only to become more personal, do a far better job of being able to blend the two.

“I’ve found that the friendships I’ve formed with my co-workers have become some of the most valuable and cherished friendships in my adult life so far…. I know I can turn to any of them with an idea for a client or even if I want to switch jobs and they’ll help me run with it instead of shutting me down.” Cara S.

A few readers offered tips for how to get better at mixing business and friendship:

“One of the things I often keep in mind in business is to ask myself, “Would a man do this?” or “Would a man feel uncomfortable about doing this?” If men feel comfortable pitching to friends and if those friends can feel comfortable whether they say yes OR no, then I should be able to get to that mindset as well.” — Savana R.

“[If a friend and I] decide we want to work together or are interested in looking at how that might look. Then we have a conversation in which we talk about the problems we might encounter—dissatisfaction with something in our business relationship, always talking business and thus losing our friendship, for example. We agree that we can and will say anything and everything to ensure that the ‘space’ between us is clear. We have a process where we say, as a practice to switch our relationships, ‘Ok, Now I am putting on my business (or in my case, coach) hat.'” — Janet Z

“I cofounded a woman’s initiative whose mission is to support the personal and professional success and fulfillment of women and offer resources to help women live empowered lives. An essential component has been to create an environment within which women actively support each other professionally. Recently I had this discussion about what I can do to help women network more effectively. I find that women need ice breaker tools to help them get more comfortable approaching other women. Ever since junior high we’ve been more exclusive versus inclusive. Maybe we can do a job better job helping our daughters so we can break the cycle.” — Barbara B.

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