A young woman I’ve been mentoring for a few years told me about a women’s professional forum she recently attended. She is not the type who sees gender issues in every office interaction, and, in fact, she didn’t have much interest in attending this women’s forum.
I come from an earlier generation. As a young female attorney thirty years ago, I was glad of opportunities to speak with older women about how they had handled problems in the workplace and in balancing work and home activities. I appreciated the stories they told of how they coped—with clients, with colleagues, with managers.
The working world is a (mostly) easier place for women now than thirty years ago. But I still believe there is a need for senior women to mentor more junior women. We can all benefit from hearing how people like us have survived and thrived in difficult circumstances—and every career has its share of difficult circumstances.
But some of the advice given at women’s forums is appallingly bad. At the conference my young friend attended, there was a session on networking. Many of the young women in attendance expressed their discomfort with the small talk that networking requires and wanted to know what to talk about.
What were they told? Compliment the women on their hair and shoes; talk to men about sports.
Why would senior women perpetuate this stereotyped view of men’s and women’s interests? Why would experienced women professionals tell their younger colleagues to focus on women’s appearance?
It so happens that my friend is a better athlete than most of her male peers. It so happens that if men were given similar advice—talk to men about sports and women about hair and shoes—they would risk charges of sexual harassment.
Why are we still segregating men and women with the advice we give them?
Here are some much better conversation openers:
1. When meeting someone at a conference, ask what they thought of the last speaker. Or if the introduction takes place before the sessions begin, ask what they hope to get out of the conference.
2. Ask if they’ve ever been to this location before—depending on the circumstances, you could ask about the city, the hotel, or the conference center. Then ask follow-up questions about what they like or dislike about the venue.
3. Try to find shared experiences with the person you are trying to speak with. You can use their clothes as a clue—if you are a runner, ask a person in running clothes if they know of a good running route in the area. But I wouldn’t comment on the “cute top” they have on. If you’re not a runner, stay away from the topic. Remember, the point is to find shared experiences.
4. Another technique is to build empathy. If someone drops something, pick it up, and say, “They’ve given us way too much to carry here.” If someone looks like they’ve lost something, ask, “Can I help you find something?” Be friendly and helpful.
5. You can also find ways to let the other person shine—if they made an intelligent comment during a meeting, let them know, and ask another question on that topic.
6. Once the ice is broken, ask where they grew up. Perhaps you’ve been to that city or state and can take the conversation toward sights you’ve seen there. Or comment on what you’d like to see there. Or ask what they liked best about growing up in that location.
7. If nothing else, talk about the weather. It’s safe. Religion and politics are not, unless you’re at a meeting related to those topics.
But avoid conversation about hair and shoes and clothing and any other personal attributes. At least until you know them better.
Remember, if you couldn’t make the comment to someone of the opposite gender, it probably isn’t appropriate for any networking situation.
For a list of questions that might help (though some of these seem outlandish to me for a first meeting), try 48 Questions That’ll Make Awkward Small Talk So Much Easier, by Aja Frost at TheMuse.com. Even if these particular questions don’t work for you, it is a good idea to have some topics prepared in advance when you know you’re going to have to meet new people.
What bad networking advice have you heard over the years?