Men and women are networking very differently during the pandemic

January 20, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC
Men Women Networking Pandemic
Men and women are both still networking, but not in the same ways.
SDI Productions/Getty Images

Caili Elwell is living her best life, despite the pandemic. She runs a brand studio, just moved to Maine and is president-elect of a design networking group. 

She spends her days on Facebook and Instagram chatting with fellow “mompreneurs,” as she calls them.” Some turn into clients and others become friends and referrals. 

Her husband Douglas, on the other hand, views social media as a way to catch up with family or existing friends versus networking among strangers. 

For him, “Facebook is something to decompress. He’s the textbook definition of an introvert,” 29-year-old Caili Elwell says. “I consider it a form of an accomplishment if I can get someone to respond to a cold reachout. He doesn’t like doing that.”

The husband-and-wife pair is a classic case in how men and women are networking very differently through the pandemic. Yale management professor Marissa King is author of the new book, “Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection.” Initially basing the work on pre-pandemic research, she revisited subjects after the lockdown and made a stark discovery: Networks had shrunk by 17%—almost entirely among men. 

“It’s not how much time you’re spending networking. Women have far less time than men do,” she said. “It’s how you spend it.”

She outlines key differences between men and women, as well as the overall disconcerting trend of loneliness in the pandemic and how employers and networks might help. 

  • Men’s networking tends to be more transactional: I do something for you. You do something for me. 
  • There are two types of employees: People who can separate work and home, and those who cannot. The latter is contending with steep burnout right now. 
  • Videoconferences put a lot of pressure on nonverbal communication and might not be ideal for important conversations. 
  • The bigger the network someone has, the less lonely they are. Workplaces traditionally help counter loneliness, polarization and echo chambers. They need to embrace this role even more right now.

Men tend to build what King calls “instrumental” relationships, classic tit-for tat. Example: The Washington Post’s millennial women’s section, The Lily, recently declared in a headline, “Women ask for coffee, men tend to call in favors.”

“What can I get out of it? What are my workplace goals?” is what men ask, according to King. “Women tend to have much more emotion in their relationship. And it turns out that instrumentality is a pretty weak foundation during times of crisis.” 

That women have hung onto networks is a rare spot of positive news for them in the pandemic. They are losing business. They are losing jobs. And they are losing any semblance of balance among work, homeschooling and hitting refresh to schedule elderly parents for vaccines (I see you, fellow members of the sandwich generation). Some are just dropping out of the workforce altogether. 

Ironically, the same conditions hurting women right now might be causing them to turn to each other. Networks serve to reinforce community and amplify community. 

“Men tend to maintain their social connections by doing things together,” King said, citing golf or drinks at the bar. “Women tend to maintain their ties through conversation.”

Her research finds that people with five or more close connections haven’t experienced loneliness in the pandemic. And this is an area workplaces can help foster connectivity, both now and after the return to work.

As the country’s attention shifts this week to political transition and healing divides, workplaces have an active role to play. “If we talk about what’s happened to our networks in the pandemic—they’ve become more closed and sealed off,” King said. “They’ve become more of an echo chamber.”

Something as simple as checking on employees to let them know they are not alone can make a big difference. And don’t always make it a Zoom. “If you really want to connect, shifting to voice-only communication will allow you to connect far better than video,” King says. “Video might make you think, ‘I don’t want to look like I’m upset.’ It increases focus on the self, versus what’s being said.”

Workers generally fit into one of two categories that are also affecting networking. So-called ‘segmenters’ keep work and home separate, tend to have longer commutes and maintain separate calendars. ‘Integrators’ are comfortable with home and work overlapping. 

The pandemic—think “living at work versus working from home”—has been especially tough on integrators, who have a harder time setting boundaries.

This was brand consultant Elwell’s main problem in the earlier days of the pandemic and launching her business. It was pressure I put on myself,” she says, in hindsight. “Then I realized I am creating this wonderful thing that feeds every part of my soul, my entrepreneurial, creative and provider sides for my daughter, my husband—and myself. I have to protect that.”

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