RedEye

Networking's gender gap

I recently received an advance copy of a book that has the word "SEX" in the title in big, red capital letters and, because I'm a sucker and a guy, I opened it and started looking for pictures.

Finding none, I grunted and settled for second-best — looking at the words. Turns out they are quite interesting, and not in the way you might imagine.

The book is called "Business Networking and Sex," and it's a fascinating examination of the ways professional men and women interact and network. Based on data culled from about 12,000 online surveys and interviews with an array of experts, the book provides refreshingly pragmatic takes on why women and men interact differently in the working world, as well as suggestions on how to improve those interactions.

Here's the bottom line: Most men approach their business dealings like men, most women approach their business dealings like women, and neither side seems particularly interested in understanding why there's sometimes a disconnect.

"The biggest thing we found, I think, is that we're really not that far apart, men and women," said co-author Hazel Walker, a networking strategist. "We want the exact same things, we're headed to the same destination, we just use different techniques and tactics to get there."

The book explains how men tend to use a "transactional" approach to business — very direct, cut to the chase, close the deal, with a good amount of highlighting one's accomplishments mixed in.

Women more often use a "relational" approach — getting to know people, building a relationship first and then getting down to the business at hand.

"If you think about the history of mankind, men were the hunters, women were the gatherers," Walker said. "Women were the keepers of the fires, the builders of the community. Women understood they have to have relationships around them to survive."

And the bad news for my fellow men is, not surprisingly, the women's approach seems to be more effective.

"When we really looked at the data, women fared much better in the results," said co-author Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of Business Network International. "The bottom line is women spend less time networking and still get a greater percentage of their business through referrals. Whether you're a man or a woman, focusing on the professional relationship will get you farther than focusing on a transaction."

Misner said that to test this theory about the importance of relationships among women, he asked a large audience he was addressing whether they had a relationship with their dry cleaner.

"Ten times more women raised their hands than men," he said. "Men view something like a dry cleaner as a transaction. 'I give them money, they clean my clothes.' Women will get to know the people that work there better and view it much more like a relationship than a transaction."

So why is this a problem?

"The problem is that women speak to men to relate and men speak to women to impress," Walker said. "Because women speak to relate, men think they're not serious about their business, they always get personal. They're just as serious as the guys are; they just do it differently."

And guys acting like guys — puffing out their chests or sidestepping relational topics and getting right down to business — can be off-putting to a woman, who thinks the man is flirting or not taking her seriously.

These disconnects are often made worse by two false stereotypes — that men mainly want to stare at women's chests and that women dress provocatively so men will notice their chests.

The book puts forth a "98/2 rule," which says that, "Two percent of the population in each demographic creates a reputation for the remaining 98 percent."

"The overwhelming majority of men at a business event behave appropriately," Misner said. "It's that 2 percent that do not, and that becomes the perception of the gender. Most women dress completely appropriately at business events — it's that 2 percent that don't that become the water cooler discussion. Small percentages can lead the discussion."

And those false perceptions put up immediate — and unnecessary — blockades to smooth interaction.

So how can we get past the differences in our gender-specific approaches to business? (This all starts to feel a bit like a grade-school dance, with girls on one side of the gym, boys on the other and nobody having a clue how to break the ice.)

Walker and Misner say it boils down to the simple axiom that knowledge is power. If you're a man, recognize that the way you typically approach another man in a work situation might not work as well with a woman. Ditto for women.

"The guys need to slow down, listen to her — find ways to find common ground and you will build business with her," Walker said. "And women need to be more clear in their communication. Say what you want. Be more direct and men will respond better."

Undoubtedly some folks out there — male and female —will view this advice as sexist to some degree. And certainly the assumptions made in the book, which comes out in January, do not apply to every man or woman.

But I think we're better served dropping any pretense of political correctness and taking an honest look at our natural tendencies. Men and women are different. We comport ourselves — at work and in our personal lives — in ways that don't always mesh.

Personal relationships between men and women work best when there's compromise and a mutual understanding of how each person functions.

Why should it be any different in the workplace?

You can learn more about the survey data and the book at BusinessNetworkingandSex.com.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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