How to Network When You’re the Only Woman in the Room
The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What’s the best way to network? is written by Rachel Weiss, VP of digital innovation and entrepreneurship at L’Oréal USA.
Five years ago, one of my idols, Tina Fey, gave some great advice at the launch party for the L’Oréal Women in Digital program: “Don’t be the only woman in the room.” She was addressing what it was like for her in the male-dominated world of comedy. Many of the women at this event understood exactly what it felt like to be the only woman in the room, and her advice has stayed with all of us over time. Driving technological change for big companies through the course of my career has often put me in situations where I have been alone as a female, and sometimes ignored.
Addressing gender politics and diversity is a big part of how I navigate between two polar-opposite worlds—the 80% female beauty industry and the 76% male tech industry. This has given me a unique perspective on what women should remember when networking, especially when they’re the only woman in the room. Remembering these things can make a world of difference between mindless networking and meaningful connections:
While sisterhood is important to drive change—and I rely heavily on my own circle of women in tech—you are going to need to network with men to drive support, which may seem uncomfortable. Just over 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. There are always going to be men who dismiss women in business. The most important tip I can give in this climate is to be your best, authentic self. Don’t feel the need to overcompensate or flirt. Be the person you are with your family and friends, and when things get tough, you’ll at least feel you were your best self. I also find that people respond to me when I’m relaxed and ask a lot of questions. “What brought you here tonight?” is always a great opening line.
You don’t need a squad
Sometimes there are events you want to attend, but are too afraid to show up to alone. I urge you to be your own wing woman. Some of my most longstanding and valuable relationships and friendships derived from when I forced myself to attend an event alone. I didn’t know a soul or have a friend by my side and pushed through the discomfort. I challenged myself to introduce myself to two people I didn’t know. I urge you to try this. And don’t always go for the friendliest face. Go for the person who looks like they would never talk to you under regular circumstances. Another tip: If you know someone is going to be there who you’d like to meet, it’s okay to say you are a fan or admire his or her work. Just make sure you explain why. People love to be flattered. It’s a great conversation-starter and often easier to do alone than with a squad.
The best networking happens at the most unexpected times
Trade shows, meetings, and industry events have plenty of opportunities for impromptu networking. Consider the line for the ladies room (not often an issue at a DevCon conference), the after-party, or the bus ride home from an offsite location. Look for the opportunities when people are prepared to have a less-guarded—and often more productive—discussion. This is when real, genuine connections can be made.
Economy of favors
Be transparent with people once you make connections about what you expect. Sometimes “I just really like you” is okay along with business asks. Friendship for me is the most valuable currency, but sometimes you can connect with people for pure business reasons who will not be your friend. If this is the case, be specific on what you want from this person and be prepared for a value exchange. Time is precious, and your personal reputation is fragile with someone who doesn’t know you very well in a new relationship. Be prepared when you ask for a favor to offer one in return.
Create your own circle of champions
When people give you their time and resources, they like to feel they are part of something special. With L’Oréal’s Women in Digital program, we’ve tried to enlist an elite circle of supporters, investors, and colleagues—a healthy mix of men and women—all dedicated to advancing the cause of women working in digital marketing, technology, and IT. It’s all about creating a galvanized community and networking constantly to feed it with new perspectives and participants who have the same passion.
I can testify in all of my networking that when you meet me, you are engaging with the same Rachel my family and friends know. I approach networking not as a woman, but just as me, as Tina advised. I often still am the only woman in the room, but being true to my own values, personality, and curiosity about others has created fruitful connections. I confess there have been some sleepless nights, some awkward moments, and some not-so-great networking events, but being brave, authentic, and open to new people can change your career—and your life.