Women’s agenda shouldn’t be another COVID-19 casualty

The much-anticipated “new normal” should not turn out to be a step back for women in the workplace

COVID-19, and particularly the response to it, constitutes a massive crisis. The trouble is that during times of crisis it’s easy to jettison things we formerly thought were important in the name of survival: we run a real risk that the “new normal” could come to mean fewer personal liberties, a permanently constrained economy and a significant downgrading of the women’s agenda to obtain proper representivity and recognition in the workplace.

The danger that the women’s agenda takes a back seat in the post-COVID-19 world might seem like a lesser matter but actually it’s not. It intersects with concerns about personal liberty in the most fundamental way as well as with the health of the economy.

Women have a massive contribution to make to the economy, and thus to everybody’s wellbeing. If the women’s agenda is side-lined, we all suffer—and it’s clear that the economy will need all the help it can get to recover from the body blow of the extended lockdown and the virtual cessation of global trade.

Why the women’s agenda makes business and economic sense

The issue about women’s role in driving economic growth and creating profitable companies has been highlighted extebsively. Since McKinsey’s ground-breaking 2007 study, [1] which linked gender balance and financial performance, women’s economic role has been accepted as a legitimate business strategy.

Perhaps nothing spells out the economic benefits inherent in women’s contribution to corporate profits better than the fact that investment funds are beginning to use gender diversity as an indicator when it comes to assessing how investment worthy a company is.

Another McKinsey study found that the US could add $2.1 trillion in GDP in 2025 if all US states achieve similarly high levels of gender parity—this is 10% increase in the expected GDP (obviously before the impact of COVID-19). This GDP growth would in turn generate an additional 6.4 million jobs.[2]

The risks to the women’s agenda posed by COVID-19

First, and perhaps most fundamental of all, it appears that women have suffered more from job losses than men. This stems from the fact that women are overrepresented in jobs that are low paid or part time in sectors like leisure and hospitality, education and health and the like. In America, 20.5 million jobs were lost during March and April 2020 alone. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women make up 49% of the overall US workforce but accounted for 55% of job losses in April, thus “erasing a decade of substantial job gains for women nationwide”.[3]

And, as the United Nations points out,[4] the situation is much worse in developing economies where around 70% of female employment is in the informal sector, which is least likely to be receiving government support during the crisis, and most affected by social-distancing regulations.

A related risk is that promotions and accelerated training aimed specifically at empowering women within corporates and strengthening gender diversity might be put on hold. In the short term, this decision makes sense, but as companies come to terms with the new working arrangements, they should not lose sight of these programmes.

A second risk relates to the shift to working from home. This is naturally playing havoc with work/ life balance, and there is plenty of evidence to back up what we all know: women already shoulder more of the burden of household management and childcare than their male partners. Women are sleeping less in order to find time to get all the work and house-care done; and their ability to conduct themselves professionally during meetings is much more impaired.

Unsurprisingly, a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggested that women are suffering more stress than men during the COVID-19 emergency.[5]

All of this feeds into the subtle set of cues and learned behaviours that set women back. One of these is the reversion to traditional gender roles, of course, but a more insidious one is the “confirmation” that women really do put family before career. This belief, says one commentator, means that career-conscious women downplay their family roles at work in order to demonstrate they do not have divided loyalties, and are as ambitious and determined to succeed as male peers.[6]

In the home-working situation, women need to negotiate a sustainable and equitable distribution of household and childcare tasks with their partners as soon as possible, rather than taking the path of least resistance.

What can companies do?

Now that companies are stabilising somewhat, it’s time for them to take stock of the possible impacts of this crisis on many of their strategic initiatives, of which empowering women should be (and usually is) one. As noted above, any specific programmes they have put on hold should be revisited and, if necessary, re-envisaged for the realities of remote working and social distancing.

Unfortunately, retrenchments and job losses may be necessary. HR professionals should do everything in their power to ensure that due weight is given to considerations of gender parity when these difficult decisions are being made.

Perhaps the best antidote to the threats to women posed by COVID-19 is the one that has always fuelled much of the progress towards female empowerment: the support of like-minded women. Companies can encourage the formation of virtual support groups within the organisation for their women (and other minorities) during this period. They can also provide links to external support and mentorship groups and platforms.

Advancing the women’s agenda has always made good sense, both commercially and morally. Let’s ensure that the progress the corporate world has made towards achieving its goals are not one of the casualties of COVID-19.

[1] McKinsey & Co, Women Matter. Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver (October 2007), available at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/employment-and-growth/the-power-of-parity-advancing-womens-equality-in-the-united-states.

[1] McKinsey Global Instittute, “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in the United States”, available at https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Featured%20Insights/Employment%20and%20Growth/The%20power%20of%20parity%20Advancing%20womens%20equality%20in%20the%20United%20States/MGI-Power-of-Parity-in-US-Executive-briefing.ashx.

[1] Brittany Chambers, “How The Coronavirus Has Resulted In The Highest Job Loss For Women: Erasing A Decade Of Progress”, Forbes (12 May 2020), available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/brittanychambers/2020/05/12/how-the-coronavirus-has-resulted-in-the-highest-job-loss-for-women-erasing-a-decade-of-progress/#4cb0add6192a.

[1] United Nations, “Policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women” (9 April 2020), available at https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_april_2020.pdf.

[1] Liz Hamel and Alina Salganicoff, “Is There a Widening Gender Gap in Coronavirus Stress?”, Kaiser Family Foundation (6 April 2020), available at https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-policy-watch/is-there-widening-gender-gap-in-coronavirus-stress/.

[1] Jenny M Hoobler, “Gender equality gets a boost from the ‘new normal’”, Daily Maverick (11 May 2020), available at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-11-gender-equality-gets-a-boost-from-the-new-normal.

eNCA’s First Take Interview

Donna was on eNCA’s ‘First Take’ discussing what corporate SA should be doing this Women’s month instead of pink cupcakes

What corporate SA should be doing this Women’s month

South African business has a serious diversity problem – only 3.3% of listed companies have female CEOs and 85% of CEOs are white, despite an increase from 2018. According to an analysis of thousands of 360-degree reviews, women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones. There’s mounting research that women are better leaders.

According to those who work most closely with them, women make highly competent leaders. In fact, the study showed that women are thought to be more effective in 84% of leadership competencies that are most frequently measured, particularly taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results and displaying high integrity and honesty.

However, when women are asked to assess themselves, they are not as generous in their ratings. This aligns with my understanding from hundreds of conversations with women in the workplace.

Women’s Month is observed in August to honour a profound act of dignity and unity, when in 1956, women of all races from all over South Africa, marched to the Union Buildings to protest the pass laws. In my view, we should honour the actions of the women of 1956 and our leaders by improving the lives of South African women instead of turning August into a time to succumb to pink platitudes and pink cupcakes on desks ‘to recognise our women’.

It is baffling that we are still having discussions about the benefits of more women in leadership positions, when volumes of research make this point. And yet here we are. The problem is that we don’t seem to be moving the dial. In August especially, it’s great that we talk more about the value of women in society, but we need more action.

It’s time for South African employers to look at their businesses. It’s time to make at least one bold move. Start to measure something you haven’t previously measured. Actively investigate whether there are institutional barriers for women that have crept into your organisation.

What are you doing as an employer of women? What is the gender pay gap in your organisation? Do you have flexible working options? Are women being recruited, promoted and retained in your business? Is your workplace one in which women are free from unwanted attention? Do women have a voice in your organisation?

Creating a workplace which works for women has the bonus of working for men too. Workplace cultures that place an emphasis on respect are good for business. Diverse workplaces are more creative, happier and more productive.

My challenge and yours is to do something tangible this Women’s Month instead of participating in patronising marketing activities that celebrate women in a frivolous way. This comes across as trying to make women feel better about the fact that nothing significant is happening rather than getting to the crux of the issue.

The crux is that we are still justifying whether women make good leaders. Let’s embrace men in the conversation. It is no longer an opinion that having more women at the top is generally more profitable for businesses, or that diversity adds tangible value and impacts supply chains. Let’s start holding organisations accountable.

What’s holding women back is not lack of capability; it’s the lack of opportunity. Business leaders need to consider what is causing this lack of opportunity – is there unconscious bias at play?
In 1956, 20 000 South African women stood powerfully silent for 30 minutes and then started singing a protest song Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! which represents courage and strength: you strike a woman, you strike a rock.
It is a travesty to reduce this day in our history to cheap marketing gimmicks. Instead, let’s celebrate great South African leaders – both men and women – who inspire others to do more than they thought possible in business, in education, in politics, in life.

Six things businesses can do this women’s month

  1. Ensure targets, reporting and accountability reflect a commitment to ensuring more women in senior positions. It should be rare for women to be the only female at their managerial level.
  2. Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair and don’t make assumptions about what women with families want or don’t want.
  3. Recognise unconscious biases and everyday discrimination, which appears subtly and is amplified towards people perceived as having less power and ensure that senior leaders become advocates of diversity.
  4. Foster an inclusive and respectful culture that provides opportunities for women to showcase their achievements and ask for promotions on account of their work.
  5. Offer employees flexibility and consider creative ways to bring women who have taken a break in their career back into the workplace.
  6. Underscore that sexual harassment is unacceptable and will not be overlooked. HR teams need detailed training, so they know how to thoroughly and compassionately investigate claims of harassment, even if senior leaders are the harassers.

Discussing Gender Parity

Donna was featured on Radio 2000’s Breakfast with Nala show discussing gender parity and the impact of a diverse workforce on a company’s bottom line

Listen to the full interview here:

More women at the top will ensure that SA and the global economy become more successful

Tuesday, 2 April 2019: The benefits of women in the workplace are even greater than originally thought, according to a new study by the International Monetary Fund. If countries with low gender equality improved their equality ratings, they could see their economies grow by an average of 35% (South Africa was ranked 19th in terms of the 2018 global equality ranking scale).

While recognising the talents that women can bring to the workplace is so important, IMF Head Christine Lagarde points out that the world economy would also be less prone to financial collapse with more women in senior roles.

Women bring new skills to the workplace, and help to boost productivity as well as the size of the workforce. The IMF has started to press member countries to put into action policies that empower women, such as urging India to improve transport to make it easier for women to get to work and calling on Morocco to change its inheritance laws.

The research suggests that banks would be more stable if there were more women on their boards. Banks which have more women in executive positions have larger capital buffers, fewer non-performing loans and lower risk indices.

Gender gap

We are past debating the integral role women play in growing economies. Yet the gender gap is still massive. In 2018 the World Economic Forum estimated that the global gender gap will take 108 years to close and economic gender parity will take even longer – about 202 years.

France and Germany tax men and women separately rather than jointly when they live in the same household. Female participation is still way below that of men, and the gender pay gap among rich countries members is 16% (amongst members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a think tank for developed nations). Although South Africa has done relatively well at 19th for overall gender equity, we came in at 91 for economic participation and opportunity. We have plenty of room to improve.

Interestingly, 88% of countries worldwide have restrictions against women in the workplace embedded in their constitutions or laws. Some forbid women from doing specific jobs, 59 countries have no laws against sexual harassment in the workplace and there are 18 countries where women can be legally prevented from working.


While we don’t have any institutional restrictions on women in the workplace in South Africa, there are a number of barriers for women in business.

Women are judged more harshly at work than their male counterparts, particularly when it comes to making mistakes. Women who lead large public and private companies face greater scrutiny because of their gender. They’re also more likely to be judged according to their voice and personalities. In 2015, a study found that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% when they’re judged as being forceful or assertive — qualities often lauded among male CEOs. So, women don’t make mistakes more often than men, but when they do the consequences are harsher; they fall harder than their male counterparts.

Gender empowerment

Author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic raises two powerful questions we should consider. Why is it so easy for incompetent men to become leaders? And why is it so hard for competent people to advance, especially competent women?

When competent women and men who don’t fit the stereotype are unfairly overlooked, we all suffer the consequences. The result, he argues, is a deeply flawed system that rewards arrogance rather than humility, and loudness rather than wisdom.

There is plenty of evidence that shows improved profitability for businesses with women at the top. The recent IMF study provides proof that gender empowerment means higher growth, a reduction in inequality, an improvement in the strength of the economy and a more diversified, export-focused country.

What is South African business waiting for?

Interview with 702’s Africa Melane

Donna Rachelson spoke to 702’s Africa Melana about the need for intervention by South African businesses to prevent the failure of women in the workplace.

You can listen to the full interview here:

Women will fail in the workplace unless SA businesses act

If companies continue to hire and promote women at current rates, the number of women in management will increase by just one percentage point over the next ten years, according to recent research published by McKinsey in the USA. But if companies start hiring and promoting women and men to manage  at equal rates over the next ten years, parity in management will be close — 48 percent women versus 52 percent men.

In South Africa, which lags the US in workplace trends, we haven’t made significant strides. Year after year, the majority of senior executives in South Africa are men. In July last year, only one of the JSE’s Top 40 companies had a female CEO.

Although workplace discrimination is legislated and awareness is growing of what’s holding women back, ultimately it is the men in executive positions who can make the most difference by hiring and promoting women at managerial level.

Never mind a level playing field, are women even on the pitch?

In my view, we are past debating the integral role women play in growing economies. Research shows that companies with more women in senior positions are more profitable. So, why the disparity?

The McKinsey study shows that in the US for more than 30 years, women have been earning more degrees than men. They’re asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men. And they are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men. This evidence negates perceptions that women are less educated, do not negotiate for promotions and increases at the same rates and spend less time in the workforce than their male counterparts.

To close the gender gap in business, we need robust discussions with men around thinking differently about women and work. If mostly male leaders view gender diversity as a business imperative, they will work to understand the challenges women face in the workplace and take bolder steps to support and advocate for change.

Female representation in senior positions

In South Africa, despite making up more than half of our population, women executives are underrepresented and underpaid. As many as 20% of South African companies have no women in senior roles.

The two biggest drivers of representation are hiring and promotions.  Companies are disadvantaging women in these areas from the beginning of their careers. Women are less likely to be hired into entry-level jobs. At the first critical step up to managerial roles, the disparity widens further. Women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs, and they are far less likely to be promoted into them. It follows that men hold the majority of manager positions. This early inequality impacts the talent pipeline, making it very difficult for women to catch up.

Barriers for women in business

Managerial support and access to senior leaders are significant and widely accepted barriers for women in business. But there are others. Everyday discrimination, or microaggression, can appear in subtle ways and is amplified towards people perceived as having less power, such as women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and black people. This seems small when dealt with individually, but when repeated over time, it adds up to a sense of unfairness at work.

Examples of microaggression are women having to provide more evidence of their competence than men and having their judgment questioned in their area of expertise. They are also twice as likely as men to have been mistaken for someone in a more junior position.

Sexual harassment continues to pervade the workplace.  While it is true that most companies have policies that make it clear sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, many employees think their companies are not sufficiently putting policies into practice.

Women who are ‘the only’ female at their management level are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women. They are more likely to have their abilities challenged, to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks and to feel as if they cannot talk about their personal lives at work. These women are almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their careers. Interestingly, when asked how it feels to be the only man in the room, men who are the only men among female peers most frequently say they feel included.

What can be done?

The first step is to get the basics right. Ensure targets, reporting and accountability reflect a commitment to ensuring more women in senior positions. It should be rare for women to be the only person at their managerial level.

Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair and don’t make assumptions about what women with families want or don’t want.

Recognise unconscious biases and microaggression and ensure that senior leaders become advocates of diversity. Foster an inclusive and respectful culture that provides opportunities for women to showcase their achievements and ask for promotions on account of their work. Women tend to resist presenting new ideas or concepts until they are perfect, whereas their male counterparts are typically more willing to take the risk of putting their thoughts across without considering all the options.

Offer employees flexibility and consider creative ways to bring women who have taken a break in their career back into the workplace.

Underscore that sexual harassment is unacceptable and will not be overlooked. HR teams need detailed training so they know how to thoroughly and compassionately investigate claims of harassment, even if it involves senior leaders.

Opinion Piece: Careers of SA businesswomen constrained by unsupportive male partners

Monday, 26 November 2018: A supportive relationship with male partners is a key factor in women succeeding in the workplace. This is a rarity in South Africa and it is negatively affecting women’s careers.

Gender discrimination in the workplace is regulated and while we still have a long way to go in South Africa, women are making some progress in achieving gender equality at work. But corporates who want to reap the benefits of having women in senior roles need to understand the issues which constrain women outside the work environment. Statistics show that women across the world spend more time doing housework than their male partners. They perform the more tedious tasks of shopping, cleaning and cooking and are more likely than men to scale back their careers to make the family a priority.

The model of the male breadwinner still dominates gender role division in the home and this spills over into the workplace. In a conservative country like South Africa, there are men who still assert their masculinity by sitting on the couch watching tv while their wives, who are also employed full time, do the lion’s share of the work at home.

In 2016, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) confirmed that South African women spend, on average, 4.3 hours per day on home and care work while men spend just 1.5 hours. Women have to combine productive, paid work with care work at home.

These findings are in line with a national study done in South Africa in 2000 and repeated in 2010 by Statistics South Africa in all nine provinces.

One of the most important career decisions I made, was the choice of my husband who agreed to a 50/50 partnership at home and in the care of our children. Early in our marriage, we recognised that for both of us to have successful careers, we would both need to make sacrifices.

Being a very hands-on father and comfortable with the many tasks that accompany bringing up children, we have together navigated a supportive and workable relationship. We also agreed what costs each of us would cover – it is a 50/50 split. While there is no formal agreement about this relationship, there is a deep respect for what is required to run a household and raise children, so an equal allocation of roles has been pivotal to a successful 18-year marriage.


While corporates don’t have the ability to influence gender roles in the home, they need to be clear on the role gender plays at work and at home. Family circumstances have a significant influence on the decisions women make about work.

A ‘good mother’ is typically measured by devotion to children’s needs, the availability of time to address these needs, and family stability evidenced by a clean and well-nourished household.

In contrast, the ‘ideal worker’ is available 24/7 and does not have obligations outside of work. She makes arrangements for outsourced care to ensure she is available. Working women experience severe time poverty and many are stressed because they believe they are failing at both the ‘good mother’ and the ‘ideal worker’ standard.

Sometimes companies need to treat women and men differently to achieve equality. For instance, maternity leave is work – it is not a time when women go on lunch dates and relax – it is work at home. Paternity leave should be taken seriously by South African companies so that men can do their part of the care work during this time.

On a more practical level, flexible work hours and childcare facilities at work should not be seen as luxuries for women. It benefits companies when mothers and fathers have peace of mind about who looks after their children because it allows them to be more productive at the office.

Businesses should consider whether company culture creates an unspoken bias against women. Culture can punish those who choose not to participate in out-of-office networking events over going home to their families instead of socialising with people of influence at work. Even with the best intentions, corporates may inadvertently be thwarting women’s careers by ignoring their realities.

As Prof Amanda Gouws notes in the SABPP Report on fairness in relation to work, employers need to understand that both the workplace and the home are gendered. There is no such a thing as a gender-neutral space where gender plays no role.

When corporates take the realities of women seriously, they enable women and men to participate differently at work, bringing their full selves and talents.

Uplifting women in the workforce and in their own businesses could have far-reaching impact. In South Africa, women are generally supporting entire families and research has shown that they are more likely to make a social contribution than men. It is a monumental tragedy to keep women on the outskirts of the economy.

How to get funding for your business, as a woman

Today is Equal Pay Day – a date that symbolises just how many more months’ women need to work to earn what men did the year before. In South Africa, this came under the spotlight recently on the better-known Human Rights Day, where it was reported in a new Ipsos survey that women earn 27% less than their male colleagues.

The survey states that the gender pay gap is widening, with women earning R55 for every R100 that men do. It’s not surprising then to see an increase in the number of female entrepreneurs, looking to boost their income. According to the Real State of Entrepreneurship Survey, male entrepreneurs still dominate the numbers but female entrepreneurs are gaining traction. Driven by Donna Rachelson, CEO of Seed Engine, the survey indicates that female representation has shifted from 35% to 47% over the last three years and overall, 84% of all respondents have worked for at least 1 year before starting their own business.

Whether they are earning more or less than they might have in the corporate world is undetermined but what the survey does indicate, is that only 48% of the businesses reviewed are generating revenue. Their success is attributed to great networks and access to business support services – including funding.

According to Rachelson, the inability to raise funds is the second biggest challenge entrepreneurs’ face, right after finding customers – and while the South African government has prioritised the advancement of women-owned businesses, there is still a long way to go when it comes to funding them.

‘It’s a well-known phenomenon that women struggle more to get funding than men, who are perceived to make better entrepreneurs,’ says Rachelson. This is confirmed by Forbes.com, which states that female entrepreneurs receive less than 3% of all venture capital funding – and by Fortune.com which declares that the funding gender gap is actually getting worse. In part, this may be owing to the reality that very few women are actually at the helm of start-ups but mostly, research suggests that women tend to be judged on their performance while men get rated on their potential. Men are believed to be able to create more influential networks, hold higher-ranking positions and as we already know, command more money, which is intrinsically linked to higher value.’ Basically, women end up asking for – and receiving – less.

Venture capitalists tend to be mostly male for the same reasons and unfortunately, those with money to invest pick, projects that they can relate to and are most passionate about. Rachelson does add though, that ‘the good news is funders just want to make money at the end of the day and if women can break through cultural limitations and tangibly demonstrate their worth, they may just sit up and realise that discrimination only gets in the way of opportunity.’

Rachelson suggests that women take this into their own hands by primarily focusing on business traction, adding that ‘an increasing number of orders coming in will definitely peak investor interest.’ She also adds that ‘demonstrating that their business is bigger than one person, with a powerful team behind it that can support its growth, is equally as vital. ‘Of course, also key to showing growth is knowing what the key financial drivers of their business are and being comfortable talking about them – many women fall down here,’ she adds.

A focused and impactful approach to marketing will go a long way too, as will a crystal clear understanding of target markets and key business differentiators. Rachelson does point out thought that ‘it’s not always possible to wait until everything is perfect before looking for funding. Women tend to be perfectionists and need to practice confidence, which goes a long way towards ‘faking it until you make it.’

Further to the advice she has for women entrepreneurs, Rachelson emphasizes that venture capitalists need to step up their game too. ‘Financiers need to be thinking about what they can do to increase the diversity of their portfolios. Blind funding practices where the gender of an applicant is not disclosed, unanimous partner voting and women actively stepping forward to support other women, are just a few ways in which this could realistically be achieved.

While more research is certainly needed to fully understand the influence of gender on funding and what factors determine a female entrepreneur’s financial success, women need to take action now if Equal Pay Day is ever to become less about the gender pay gap and more about what we are doing to close it.

For more on Donna Rachelson, visit www.donnarachelson.com. Donna is a driven entrepreneur with a passion for helping women and entrepreneurs to make their mark. As an active advocate for diversity, she drives her agenda through the books she has authored, the keynote presentations she delivers, the media opinions she provides and the ecosystem lobbying she spearheads. In her current role as CEO and shareholder of Seed Engine, which includes Seed Academy and the WDB Growth Fund, she focuses on social impact and creating economic inclusion through entrepreneurship. Seed Engine builds the skills and capacity of youth and women entrepreneurs and supports them to grow and scale their businesses through high impact business development support, access to markets and funding. Visit Seed Engine at www.seedengine.co.za.

Work your network like a man, this International Women’s Day

Nothing is more effective than interpersonal relationships, says Richard Branson and his company Virgin, who recently posted an infographic that clearly links face-to-face contact as being 85% more effective in building strong, lasting relationships.

According to the site, 40% of all prospects are converted into customers, 28% of current business is retained and 17% of company profit is secured through, essentially, a strong handshake, great body language and a good business card. But what does this mean for working women, who understand that networking is essential but often have to prioritise doing more and socialising less in order to get home to their families at night?

Essentially, the key to networking is to stop doing it – at least, in the traditional sense. Networking is no longer about selling your image at a social event in return for a plethora of leads that require intense and often futile, follow-up. Rather, it’s about building mutually-beneficial relationships that you can quickly tap into, with the aim of working smarter, not harder.

Men are notoriously great at this, actively leveraging strong, trust-based relationships, both on and off the golf course, with other men of equal or more senior ranking – and in working environments that are still largely male-dominated, this becomes increasingly easy for them to do, as they move up the ladder. Men are also more ruthless at cutting people from their network who take up too much time, rather focusing on those ‘multipliers’ who can actively promote and widen their circle – and then doing the same for them.

Ultimately, it really is about who you choose to know and how you look after them that determines the value of your network. According to Donna Rachelson, author of ‘Play to Win – What Women Can Learn from Men in Business,’ nurturing relationships is something that women are actually inherently good at but need to make more time for. Rachelson says that ‘networking needs to be actively leveraged, like any other work task and initially, may require more ‘give’ than ‘take’ before it begins to reap rewards.’ She likens it to building a reserve of goodwill until you need to draw from it and of course, emphasizes that mutual gain is ultimately what will guarantee success. ‘Once your foot is in the door, it becomes much easier to achieve your objectives’, she says.

‘A great way for women to start putting this into practice is by reaching out and supporting other women better,’ Rachelson continues. ‘Female entrepreneurs, in particular, often speak about the need to procure from and partner with each other but seldom follow up on this without an upfront expectation of something in return. There is huge power in not only being able to ask for help but also reaching out and mentoring someone else.’

Ultimately, the power of networking for women lies in what is often referred to as the three ‘c’s’ – connections, capacity and confidence. Of course, spending time with people leads to the formation of new relationships but it’s the added bonus of sharing your knowledge and offering to help someone who needs your skillset that expands your capacity and ultimately, boosts your self-assurance through business growth or career advancement.

Practically, Rachelson suggests women start by accepting that every situation is an opportunity to network. ‘Adopt a mindset of having nothing to lose in meeting interesting people and be on the lookout for opportunities to help,’ she adds. ‘Great networking means having an open mind and spending 80% of your time listening to others and 20% asking questions.’ According to her, your key objective needs to be about discovering as much as you can about others so that you can make the link on how to support and help them – and this means you need to be a proactive conversation-starter.

‘Approaching people with a relatable comment or question is not as hard as you think. Comment on how much traffic there was getting to an event, mention a recent event or simply offer a compliment to someone. You can even do some background research on the people you are hoping to meet and memorise a few questions you’d like to ask them. Getting a conversation started is the easy part – what you really need to practice is how to keep the momentum going,’ Rachelson says. ‘A great networker stands out and is remembered – and the best way to do this is to be interesting and add value. Brush up on your current affairs knowledge but also remember to ask good, open-ended questions that get others talking. Starting with ‘what are the key challenges you face in your business’ and ‘what kind of customers are good ones for your business’ could help you identify how you can assist them further.’

Rachelson goes on to caution that you must remain authentic in your approach. ‘Do not put on a façade and remember to share real information about yourself and your views so that people can get to know who you are and how in turn, they can one day perhaps help you. This clarifies the way for a mutually-beneficial relationship and creates an opportunity for you to follow up on, after you part ways.’

Rachelson’s ‘Play to Win’ book, available on www.donnarachelson.com, offers additional advice on how to not only network like a man but ultimately, play to win, according to men’s rules in the workplace. She adds that ‘there’s tremendous power in combining an understanding of the rules of business with the strengths that women bring to the workplace. Essentially, women can wear both the skirt and the pants’.

And wear them well, we do. In fact, we can pretty much do whatever we set our minds to. We’ve proved it time and time again, which is why we have an international day that recognises us. Let’s start reminding people of our value – and then give them a chance to demonstrate theirs. It’s the smartest way to gain customers, retain business and secure profit – all before home time.

© Donna Rachelson. All Rights Reserved.