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How to Network Like the 'Good Old Boys' -- As a Woman

The glass ceiling may be primed for removal, but women can still find themselves at a disadvantage in a male-dominated business world. Just ask Liz Duggan, a communications and marketing professional, who was working at a trade show when a delegate responded to her request to scan his name badge by sizing her up and down.

Then, with co-workers snickering nearby, he said: "I've waited all my life for a woman to say that to me."

It's the type of awkward comment that can make networking difficult for women. Do you speak up and appear to be rigid and overly sensitive? Or allow the comment to pass and give off the impression you lack self value? To navigate the tricky terrain of professional relationships, networking experts say women should start by creating a circle of mentors and contacts in business school that can help them move from the classroom to the boardroom.

College support for women MBAs

While business was long considered a man's world, it seems inevitable that women will eventually be represented in equal numbers in both business schools and the workplace. According to U.S. News and World Report, the incoming class at Harvard Business School is 39 percent women, the highest percentage in the institution's history. Meanwhile, women make up 45 percent of new students at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Despite the increase in female student MBAs, there continues to be a significant gender gap when it comes to the boardroom. The 2010 Catalyst Census, sponsored by finance firm Ernst & Young, found women held only 15.7 percent of board seats for Fortune 500 companies. In addition, more than 10 percent of these companies had no women on their board. To help women break into this upper crust of the business world, many colleges are working to bolster women's networking and business skills.

"We really try to do a good job of giving our women access to senior level professionals," said Nsombi Ricketts, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Johnson at Cornell University.

At Johnson, emphasis has been placed on providing women with a toolbox of resources to help them head into the workplace. To that end, the school held the Johnson Women in Business Conference last year to address the specific challenges facing women MBAs. At the college, female students are given opportunities to make connections, practice elevator pitches and learn from successful women business leaders.

"We've tried a lot of innovative things to give [women] the tools to be successful," said Ricketts.

4 steps to network like the 'good old boys'

Shelly Gorman is the Director of Career Management for MBA@UNC, an online version of the top-ranked MBA program offered by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. Gorman said networking is a never-ending process that should begin in school and continue throughout one's career.

When it comes to learning how to network, Gorman advises women to follow four steps:

  1. Understand your brand
  2. Know who you want to network with and what you hope to gain
  3. Build a strategic group of mentors
  4. Contact network connections often and through a variety of methods

"It is important to think of networking as building a relationship over time and women are fantastic at relationship building," said Gorman.

She said that it's a common mistake to think of networking as something with a beginning and an end. Instead, it is an ongoing process of meeting individuals and staying in touch via social media and traditional means of communication. Ricketts said the most difficult part of networking in an increasingly mobile world is keeping track of connections after they are made.

"You want to stay in touch with key people," said Ricketts. "Use social networking sites, send notes to let people know where you are going and forward on items of interest."

Handling bad behavior

Despite women's gains in the business world, many regions of the country continue to be dominated by 'good old boy' networks. Although women may not be met with outright hostility, they may find themselves on the receiving end of unwelcome comments or advances. When that happens, networking experts say it is best to keep your calm.

"You have to remain professional and quickly divert the conversation back on track," said Ricketts.

In Duggan's case at the tradeshow, once the laughter subsided, she politely suggested the offending delegate might be better served by her male co-worker. As a marketing manager for a business in a male-dominated manufacturing industry, she's found that meekness is best left at the door.

"It is key to establish creditability early in the conversation," said Duggan. "I immediately start talking their language by using industry buzz words ... Never remain quiet too long, or they will forget you are there."

When confronted with an awkward comment or situation, Gorman said that women should avoid making a huge deal about it. However, she advised women to think twice about continuing to network with such an individual.

"Networking is about managing your reputation," Gorman said. "If someone says something sexist, do you really want them reflecting poorly on you?"

Ultimately, Gorman said women need to have the confidence to ask for what they want. Only then will women discover how to network like a pro – whether their connections come from the old boys or the latest social media network.