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Women Ask for Coffee, Men Tend to Call in Favors: Why Pandemic Networking is Even Harder for Women

Carol Kitchener writes:

The first step to making a new professional connection can be a little awkward.

Usually, you start by reaching out over email. You might agonize over the acceptable number of exclamation points — or double check the spelling of several words you have certainly spelled successfully many times before. You read the email at least three times before you hit send. It’s awful and anxiety inducing.

But then it gets better.

The object of your inquiry either doesn’t respond — at which time you can forget the whole thing ever happened — or they accept your oh-so-casual invitation to coffee (or lunch or drinks, if you were feeling brave). Chances are, the two of you spend some time getting to know each other, hopefully talking and laughing about at least a few things that have nothing to do with work.

Now though, that can’t happen. In the middle of a pandemic, the only place networking can happen is across a screen: over email, on the phone, or on a video platform like Zoom.

This is bad news for women.

Studies show that women and men network differently. While men — more self-assured than women, on average — are quicker to ask for favors from a wider range of connections, women prioritize building a relationship with professional contacts, says Marjo-Riitta Diehl, a professor of organizational behavior at the EBS Business School in Germany, who has studied gender differences in networking. Men are quicker to self promote: According to one recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, women estimated that they performed an average of 15 points worse than men on a test, even though both genders had the same average score.

When women network, Diehl says, they are particularly concerned with “relational morality” — not wanting to ask for something without knowing when and how they can do something for the person in return. Women tend to make a request only after they’ve had a chance to forge a deeper connection.

“For women, this idea of reciprocity — I give something to the network, get something from the network — is very important,” said Diehl.

It’s hard to forge a deeper connection on Zoom, particularly if you’re trying to network with someone you’ve never met. Most video calls these days are either purely utilitarian — a work meeting — or purely social — a call with family or friends to maintain the in-person social connections we lost overnight. While an hour of casual banter with a stranger will always be a hard sell, that kind of interaction feels especially hard to justify when it has to happen across a screen. If the more senior colleague is a parent with young kids at home, forget it. There’s no time for lingering conversation. You might have time to ask a quick favor — and that’s about it.

This puts women at a professional disadvantage. While a man is more likely to reach out to a contact with a quick request, women may default to a “relationship building” call, far less effective over phone or video. They might also avoid the whole situation altogether, waiting until they can meet the person face to face.

Amanda Nicklas, 21, can’t afford to wait until the pandemic is over. She’s a junior in college at Webster University in St. Louis, majoring in script writing. When she graduates, she hopes to get a job in television, an ultracompetitive industry. Who you know is important, she says. Last semester, she did most of her networking though her internship in St. Louis, meeting new people through her boss. Since self-quarantine began, she’s been blasting out messages on Twitter, inviting TV writers and producers to “a virtual drinks session or lunch.” Five have agreed, joining Nicklas for 20 or 30 minutes on Zoom.

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