Women-only networking functions go beyond business card exchanges

Terry Kohl of Wild Rose, Wis., recently attended a girls-night-out at a fitness club in her community. Attendees were able to check out the facilities, speak with trainers and participate in other fun activities unrelated to the club. Although the event was a nice way to promote the fitness club, the main goal wasn't to get people to sign up for memberships.

"It wasn't such a heavily promotional type of thing...They decided to have a fun night, inviting women only, to re-establish who they were, where they were and what they had to offer," says Kohl, president of Media Management Marketing, a PR firm in the automotive industry, and the author of Lost Your Job? Now What!

Although the focus wasn't really on common networking, Kohl says she saw a lot of business cards being exchanged. "When you get a bunch of women together you're going to have networking whether you want to or not."

Across the U.S. women are being drawn to female-only networking events in large numbers. As with functions attended by men, these meetings allow them to trade job leads, swap advice on advancing their careers and promote their businesses. But women-only events sometimes offer a more relaxed and supportive atmosphere than functions that include men. In addition to the typical business card exchanges, breakfast meetings and luncheons, recent women's networking events around the country have included outings to jewelry and shoe stores, a scavenger hunt, dance classes and spa days.

But aside from having a good time, is it really important for women to attend networking functions without the opposite sex? Absolutely, say many women who have become successful in their fields.

"As past-president of the Newswomen's Club of New York, I think there are some big benefits to women-only networking events," says Frances McMorris, editor-in-chief of On Wall Street magazine. "First, if you are the kind of woman who feels a little intimidated in business settings where men predominate, then women-only events are a good place to start. When you are more comfortable, you ask more questions and make more connections."

Kohl agrees that attending women's events is important because men and women communicate differently. "I've been to many predominantly male events...men are more direct and to the point. It's almost as if they have to establish their credibility first...after they do that, then they sort of relax and can talk about other things."

It also may be easier for women to follow up with other women they've met at an event. "You just don't feel like you're putting [women] out to get together again," says Kohl "With men you call them up and say 'can you meet me for lunch?' and there's this whole other world that you have to deal with potentially. You don't know what they're thinking and it's awkward still, unfortunately."

But McMorris says that women shouldn't rule out male-female networks. "They are just as important. I can say that I've gotten a couple of jobs because of my network among men." Also, many women may not think they can help other women beyond a certain point since men tend to hold higher positions at many companies.

Kohl says that because of networking she's met several men throughout her career who served as mentors. She offers some advice for women who want to communicate more effectively with male colleagues.

Men "want the nuts and bolts. They want to know what you're looking for succinctly, because once they know that, they can answer that question," says Kohl. "While women are much more all over the place...we jump around and we'll get a response from another woman and that will lead us to a whole other part of the conversation, and then we'll make a circle and come back around. But men, their eyes start to glaze over if you do that. You really need to go in prepared with very specific questions or an outline of what it is you want to accomplish."

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