Meryl Bushell: Networking has been proven to be a useful tool
at every stage of career development
Why are there still so few senior women in telecoms? When I first entered the telecoms industry thirty years ago women in senior management roles were as rare as hen’s teeth.
While undeniably things have moved on in the intervening period, a quick search of the websites of a sample of 16 fixed and mobile operators revealed than an average of only 12% of the roles on their senior executive teams are held by women (see table below). The stars in terms of gender equality are Telstra, Telenor, Bharti Airtel, BT and KPN — which all have a quarter or more of their top executive posts held by women.
But, at the other end of the spectrum, Deutsche Telecom, Telefónica and Telus fall in the gender hall of shame with no female executives on their top teams.
The gender hall of shame: how many women are there in the top management teams and the main boards of leading companies?
Females on executive team
Females on board
Source: Meryl Bushell
Many reasons can be put forward to explain why women are still under-represented at the senior levels. A common excuse is that technology does not attract as many females at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and so there are fewer women in the field as a whole.
But do you really need a technology-based degree to excel in the telecoms industry? Surely commercial, marketing and retailing skills are equally important and there are plenty of female graduates in these fields.
Maybe the technical image of the industry does not appeal to women — or maybe the industry is not marketing itself appropriately?
Or maybe it’s the 24 hour, 365 day a year, always-on nature of the global telecoms market that women find difficult to juggle — or choose not to juggle — with other life commitments.
Or maybe it’s downright sexism in a macho marketplace.
Inevitably, the answers are many and varied, but I suspect that one of the reasons is that women are too busy doing their day jobs to think about building the right sort of networks that can enhance their chance of career success.
Obviously there are many successful women who build and utilize wide and vibrant networks, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
Many of the women I have coached have considered networking — and I am talking about human not technological networking — to be a rather unpleasant activity to be avoided at all costs. They don’t have time for it, they think that to be good at it you have to be able to make small talk to crowds of strangers, and they associate it with underhand and unethical political behaviour.
Unfortunately as a result of this mindset they are cutting themselves off from a wide range of information, sponsorship and mentorship which could radically improve their ability to do their current jobs and which could considerably increase their chances of career progression.
Individuals have two types of contacts in their networks:
• They have a group of friends and relatives whom they see on a relatively regular basis. Because these groups tend to be closely knit, a lot of the contacts within the group know each other and have similar interests and, as a result, information passed to the individual by one group member is often known by the other group members as well.
• They have a range of acquaintances whom they do not communicate with very often. Different acquaintances tend not to know each other, and so information brought to the individual by one acquaintance is unlikely to be repeated by other acquaintances and is more likely to be fresh, new and knowledge broadening.
There is a wealth of academic research on the topic of networking that shows that the best type of network for career development and enhancements purposes is one that is made up of both a close knit group of trusted friends for support and a large number of links to acquaintances to give access to a wide range of information from different sources.
Networking has been proven to be a useful tool at every stage of career development. It is believed that up to 60% of executive jobs are found through word of mouth. When an individual hears of a job through a contact they have a greater chance of being successful in gaining the job, as there is likely to be a better match between the job and the individual.
The more acquaintances you have in your network, the more likely you are to hear of a range of interesting job openings, and the more senior the acquaintances in your network the more likely you are to get a better paid role.
Networking has been shown to aide early socialization into new jobs, and it also reduces the chance of making an embarrassing error in the early days with a new organization. Tapping into a network of individuals — or even knowing someone who knows someone — can give information about a new role and organizational context which aids induction and transition.
The ongoing access to information and resources that a large network of acquaintances can bring can improve job performance not only by giving access to diverse information from more sources, but also by increasing opportunities for brokerage.
A person with a large number of acquaintances who do not know each other can act as the bridge between them, bringing together disconnected information and individuals. This is particularly useful for building virtual teams, controlling projects and in creating new concepts and solutions to problems.
This makes the individual appear to be particularly gifted and creative, and is the core of entrepreneurship, as it demonstrates an ability to bring together separate pieces of information to create a more valuable whole. It increases an individual’s execution capabilities across a range of disciplines such as sales, buying and project management.
Not surprisingly, individuals who demonstrate these types of qualities are more saleable and are more likely to get promoted.
In the fast changing world of technology, the information that networking brings to an individual helps to keep their skills current and allows them to take on new tasks and meet new challenges. A wide range of contacts gives the opportunity to use networking for mentoring, advice, support and sponsorship.
The case for networking is compelling, but studies have shown that the benefits tend to be more positive for men than for women, and one of the reasons is the different ways in which the genders tend to build and use their networks.
In line with the old adage “birds of a feather stick together”, people tend to build links with people who are similar to them, and this tendency is particularly prevalent amongst women: they tend to network predominantly with other women.
Since positions of power still tend to be dominated by men, this means that women tend to have fewer influential people in their networks.
Women also tend to have fewer links in their networks, building closer ties to a smaller group of similar individuals. In the process women cut themselves of from rich sources of information, sponsorship and advice and give themselves fewer opportunities to broker information.
Women tend to use their networks for friendship and support, whilst men tend to use their networks to get on. Interestingly, successful women have networks that are very similar in form and function to those of successful men.
The best types of networks are those which bring both the support and comfort of close knit friendships and the information and opportunity of a diverse web of acquaintances. Most fixed and mobile operators run specific development initiatives and programmes for their female talent but unfortunately many of these, while well intentioned, just reinforce the women networking with women syndrome.
The skills needed to build and use an effective network can be taught and learned, but like any skills they need to be practiced. Just having a load of connections does not achieve anything unless they are nurtured and used.
Being too busy to network is not an excuse, as networking increases effectiveness and therefore actually frees time up.
If we are ever going to see real equality of representation at senior management levels women have to start concentration on building — and using — the right sorts of networks. GTB
Meryl Bushell is a business and executive coach. She was previously chief procurement officer for BT Group