The Best Networking Tool for Introverted Women (and everyone else)
I’m an engineer. I’m also a woman and an introvert.
When I was a kid, I struggled to make friends. In elementary school, other girls would be playing with Barbies, while I’d be playing tag with the boys. I had no interest in the superficial conversations of middle and high school girls revolving about boyfriends and makeup. I preferred curling up in a corner with a book before and after school (and sometimes during when I could get away with it).
I valued action over talk. I participated in any number of sports or activities: basketball, track, tennis, band, chorus, and scouting, always keeping busy in a task with a concrete goal. Every conversation I had revolved around getting something done. I avoided any type of social gathering where my awkward, late-to-develop, glasses-and-braces-clad self would need to make small talk, especially with other kids I didn’t know.
I went into engineering partly because I loved how the technical work was always focused on getting stuff done. In school, there was a right and wrong answer. Facts were facts. The path to achievement was clear.
Productivity was prioritized by teachers and professors in school, and by my early engineering managers. Small talk, or even deeper conversations at work that did not revolve around a project or specific task, was viewed as a time-waster, at least through the first years of my career. Making small talk did not fit into maximizing billable hours.
Around eight years into my career, I had earned my professional engineer license after meeting the work experience requirements and passing the 30% pass-rate exam. I was excited to move on to the next challenge on the career ladder.
Except, I could no longer find the right ladder to climb. I seemed to be stuck where I was, following the same “rules” that had previously led to high achievement, yet getting nowhere.
That’s when I started to recognize that the rules had changed.
The small talk I had avoided throughout my childhood and early in my career now appeared important. After years of pursuing technical goals, I started to become aware of comments like “it’s not what you know but who you know,” or “so-and-so was promoted because he works well with clients.”
I observed that engineers with the ability to create new relationships and nurture old ones consistently had better opportunities than everyone else.
People with these networks had mentors. They were invited to events where connections were made that propelled them forward, or allowed them to move to a better job at a different company. And, perhaps most surprising to me, most of these networked engineers were introverts too.
With those facts clear to me, I decided the next logical step was to try my hand at modeling some of the behaviors that felt appropriate to my own sense of self. As a woman in engineering who had never golfed in her life, I intuitively knew that kind of networking event would be downright embarrassing for me. (For the moment, we’ll ignore the fact that this never seemed to stop my male coworkers, but that’s a story for another day.)
I chose that first event strategically. It was a social/industry awards evening event where I suspected I’d run into many of the clients with whom I had personally worked. I even went so far as to casually check to see if I should look for them at the event. Although I would consider myself a confident and self-assured person, I did not want to take a chance of repeating my “wallflower” experience during my first dance in middle school. I feared putting myself out there (again) and being rejected.
As I sat in traffic on the way to the event, I remember contemplating all the other “more productive” things I could be getting done at work instead of attending. I was petrified that no one would talk to me, or if they did, I would make a complete fool of myself. What if I got sick and puked on a current or prospective client’s shoes? What if there was a large crowd and I was overwhelmed by the noise and resorting to hiding out in the restrooms the entire time? What if I tried talking to new people, but got shut down? What would I do if someone tried to hug me in greeting? (As a side FYI for any men who work with women: no matter how long you’ve worked with someone, if you’re giving a handshake to everyone else at an event, hugs are off limits unless permission is asked first.) If any of these scenarios occurred, what would I tell my boss the next day when I was asked how the event went?
So, I made myself a few “deals”. First, I promised myself that I would NOT hide out in the ladies room for the entire event. I would stick out my hand first in greeting to (hopefully) avoid the hug situation. I also decided that if I just met 3 new people and talked to each for 5 minutes, I would consider my evening a success. In preparation, I had also practiced three open-ended questions that I could ask anyone I met.
I wasn’t the life of the party, and frankly, I have no interest in ever holding that title. But, a curious thing happened. After many years of being the only woman on the majority of my engineering teams, I found out I was memorable simply because I am female. I had never done anything I thought particularly special. I had just worked really hard to get the job done above expectations.
That evening, clients and fellow engineers who I had not seen in years found me and caught up. Some of them introduced me to others at the event. Almost everyone I met acted professionally. I did have to dodge a hug or two, but such is the life of a woman in engineering.
I didn’t even need to make the superficial talk I dreaded. I just asked questions, listened attentively, and delved deeper with more questions. If I was meeting someone new, I started with “Tell me how you came to be here this evening.” If it was someone I had worked with in the past, I’d ask “What are you currently working on that you are really excited about?” , or I’d ask them about something non-work related (a hobby or family) they had shared when we had worked together previously.
The less I talked, and the more thoughtful, open-ended questions I asked, the deeper the shared connection became. I also observed an interesting trend in groups of 3 or more — if one person dominated a conversation (almost always an extrovert from what I could tell), the group quickly dispersed. I watched the pattern repeat itself over and over again. It didn’t seem to matter if the person speaking was a boss or an intern. Talking too much about yourself — contrary to my preconceived and utterly false notions surrounding the used-car salesman atmosphere of networking events — was a relationship building no-no.
That was the first event of many of this kind I have attended. The more events I attended, the less scary they became. Today I even look forward to them. I no longer need to talk myself out of hiding in the ladies room.
A few short years after that first event, I earned a promotion, the “next step up” on the career ladder I had been seeking. My much-expanded network played a central role in increasing my visibility to my superiors with decision-making power.
If you aren’t where you want to be at work, consider your network. If you are an introvert in a male-dominated field like me, you actually have an advantage if you choose to step a bit out of your comfort zone.
Many introverts excel at listening, are curious, and prefer not to talk about themselves. When you couple that skill with a unique appearance or personality (which for me is as a woman in the male-dominated field of engineering), you have an advantage over others who will be lost in the crowd.
If you’re going to stand out anyway, might as well make the most of it. If I can do it as an introverted female engineer, you can too. All you have to do is use your natural abilities and be willing to try.