Networking can be intimidating for anyone, regardless of your gender.
That being said, for many young women fresh out of university, especially those who, like me, are breaking into male dominated industries, the thought of networking can be a particularly stressful one.
Aside from feeling the need to prove yourself equal to - if not better than - your male peers, you also feel under pressure to fly the flag for your fellow female graduates.
For me, going into the Engineering industry as a graduate where only 20% of my fellow graduates are female, it was as intimidating as it was empowering. Just getting into Engineering felt like a win for the ladies, but it's not all been smooth-sailing, especially when it comes to networking.
Feeling like a small fish in a very big pond, I noticed very quickly that, consciously or not, I was acting differently because of my gender than I perhaps would've if I was in a female dominated industry.
Not wanting to look like I wasn't independent enough or able to figure "technical" things out without the assistance of a male made me reluctant to ask for help when I needed it. When it came to meetings in which I was often the only female in the room, I couldn't help but feel intimidated and overthink what they might be thinking about me. I felt the need to make myself look older so I didn't look like the newbie I was, and generally shied away from networking in case people didn't take me seriously.
Of course, this won't just be the case for female engineering graduates. Finding your feet and making connections is without question a challenge for all graduates, whatever their gender and industry they're trying to break into.
Perhaps, like me, you find networking a struggle because of the industry in which you're working, or perhaps it's more of a confidence issue. Or maybe you just really don't like networking.
Whatever it is, there are some things I've learned as a female graduate about how to network successfully as woman.
Practise your elevator pitch
Can you confidently explain to someone exactly what you do and what projects you're currently working on in the time it takes for you to ride in a lift? It may sound silly, or even obvious, but it's harder than it seems, and being able to provide a succinct, self-assured description of what you do will help you to feel in control of the conversation when meeting new people for work. If you have a tendency to over-explain or ramble, this is a must for you.
Give yourself an aim for the event
It can be as basic and easily achievable as I will talk to 3 people and exchange business cards/add them on LinkedIn and then I can leave. Knowing exactly what it is you want to get out of a networking opportunity helps you benefit from it and also helps the time pass.
I don't just mean looking up the whos, whats and wheres of the event - although they are important, especially when it comes to researching some potential connections who'll be attending. Think also about any questions you want to ask or any questions you could be asked by other people there. There's no need to memorise an answer, but it helps to have some ideas organised just so that you're not floundering in the moment.
And by comfortably, I don't mean your favourite fluffy PJs. I mentioned above that I often worried about the image I was putting across out of fear of not being taken seriously, which involved wearing clothes that weren't really me. Doing this doesn't help boost your confidence levels. Wear what you want to wear, within reason obviously. Wear flats if you want to - you don't have to wear heels to assert yourself. But if you are short like me, you might find a little bit of height can help your confidence, so don't shy away from a heel because you don't want people to think you're a little girl in your mum's shoes.
Never stand in the corner
Parking yourself in the corner of the room at a networking event, or even just in a social situation at work, you're immediately secluding yourself and making it harder for people to approach you or for you to approach them. Aim for the middle of the room, preferably by the tea and biscuits if there are any! Not only is this usually where people hang out, but it also gives you a good "in" for a conversation.
Make eye contact before joining a group
So simple, but so important. If you're too timid to make eye contact, how are you going to assert yourself when it really comes down to it? If you can catch someone's eye, they will know that you want to join the group and may invite you in or break their circle to allow you in, making it much easier to connect with others at an event and avoid doing that awkward hover around other peoples' conversations.
Have some "leaving the conversation" sentences ready
What started as chatting to someone has turned into them just talking at you, and if you have to say "uh hm, yeah" one more time you're going to lose your mind. Rather than suffering internally until the conversation finally ends, have some lines ready for you to confidently and neatly tie everything up and move on. My go-to is: "Well, it was great speaking with you, I’m just going to top up my drink then I’m going to go and mix with some other people at the event – can I get your details before I go so that we can pick this up again soon?"
Just be yourself
Excuse the cheese, but it's sincerely the most important lesson I've learned. Networking events can seem scary, but if you can just relax and acknowledge that everyone there is a person just like you, you might just find that you'll enjoy yourself, not mention make new connections that may just help your career in the future.