Are women falling behind in the networking league?

Written by Matt Smith - 20 February 2014

Women over the age of 35 are forgoing networking, despite overwhelmingly agreeing that it is an important process in improving career prospects, according to new research. In a survey of 243 professionals – with a 51% male, 49% female gender split – only 23% of women aged 35 or over said they were active on the networking circuit at least once a week. By contrast, men in the same age group were more than twice as likely (56%) to network frequently. However, 87% of the female response set recognised that networking was an important asset to their careers.

At a time when debate continues to rage over how to ensure that greater numbers of women reach the upper echelons of industry, this latest research – conducted by law firm Trowers & Hamlins – suggests that after age 35, a worrying “network gap” is opening up between males and females. According to the survey, men and women in the 25-to-34 age range network with similar frequency. But turning to working women across age ranges, just 25% said that they network at least once a week – compared to 46% of all the male respondents. Furthermore, 32% of women stated that they network less than once a month.

Interestingly enough, in 2012 insurance firm Aviva produced a study that found 35 to be the best age in the UK, based upon data from more than 2,000 respondents. The firm said this was the case because by 35, people expected to have reached milestones such as buying a house, finding a partner and having a first child – while still having several years to go before reaching the peak of their careers at 39. Age 35 was also found to be a high point of earnings, with the average household income totalling around £27,400 a year after tax. However, according to the Trowers & Hamlins survey, a lack of networking opportunities does not seem to be the cause of the gender divide in the mid-point of many women’s careers – with 65% stating they had plenty of scope to socialise with work colleagues, clients and bosses.

Trowers & Hamlins employment partner Tania Tandon explained: “The results show that women over 35 are networking much less often than men of the same age. Arguably, this is when they are most likely to be at a stage in their careers where they are on the cusp of advancing to senior and board-level positions. Therefore, it’s interesting to see a drop off in the frequency of their networking when men are increasing the frequency of their networking at the same stage. Networking is widely credited with helping people progress in their careers – and our research confirms its importance – yet men and women are making different choices during this crucial time in their careers.”

More than half of fathers (51%) network at least once a week, compared to just 24% of mothers – but surprisingly, there is little difference in the frequency of networking between women who have children (24%) and women who don’t (26%). In Tandon’s view, women are still facing challenges to building career-boosting relationships, but the difficulties are less to do with prejudice and sexism than they were in the past.

“The ‘old boys club’ is still often blamed for perpetuating the glass ceiling and hindering women’s progression to the most senior roles,” she said. “But the professional women we surveyed appear just as likely as men to network at sporting events as conferences and seminars. There are, of course, several debates to be had about the reasons for women networking less when it arguably matters most. But what the results of this survey support is that whatever the reasons are, it is more about women and men, mothers and fathers making choices at what is perhaps a critical time in their careers than about established barriers and prejudices.”

Earlier this week, Lloyds Banking Group vowed to boost the proportion of women in its 5,000-strong senior workforce from 28% to 40% within the next six years. In committing to a fundamental review of its recruitment policies, Lloyds’ ambition falls in line with government appeals for at least a quarter of FTSE 100 directorships to be held by women by 2015.

Business secretary Vince Cable said: “Despite good progress since 2010, we are still not tapping into the talents of half the workforce. Too few women occupy the top positions of our companies today. Yet the evidence is clear – those businesses with diverse senior management make better decisions and that is reflected on the bottom line.

“This is not about political correctness, this is about good and profitable business sense.”