Networking – What Do You Do?

When Ireland’s Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley met England’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1593 at the Palace of Greenwich in London, they reportedly spoke to each other in Latin, as it was handiest, these being 16th century times and our island a Gaelic stronghold. (We’ll ignore the Google results which say she probably had a good grasp of English.) Grace wanted some lands returned to her, and her son released from jail. She got her son back, not her property.

You can be taught the language of networking. In 2012 I attended an event run by then nascent non-partisan organisation Women for Election. Women of different political hues and intents gathered in a room, their tables dotted with small pastries – there are always small pastries – as we were talked through the process of running for public office.

Communications expert types, including one who had worked with Seán Gallagher and was proud but sore about how far she had gotten that man, told us to work on and refine our 30 seconds and three-minute elevator pitches. It’s a curious process, distilling yourself and your goals down to digestible chunks. Networking is the seeking of a return on your personal investment. You’ve given a version of yourself to someone. You’ve decided to spend time doing this.

Four years later and I’ve networked a lot more, generally in predominantly female circles. But I’m the stage where I’m nearly done. I’ve got my 500 plus connections on LinkedIn. Prosecco no longer goes down so easily. I am envious of the imaginary idle woman. Everything is a barrage of “I’m so busy.” I wonder how women with children at home and a sick parent find the exuberance of the stressed-but-loving-it young woman. I’m past the point of pissed off-ness when I’m talking to someone and she looks over my shoulder for someone more important. Aren’t we all looking side-eye for the food, anyway?

I’ve learned what I can, and I’ve learned my worth. In the immediacy of life post-college, asking, “What do you do?” of a newbie acquaintance at a slightly scummy house party where the solitary bathroom towel is damp and nearly walking is the sign of a True Bitch. In the real world though, it’s merely an Advanced Search. You’re saving each other time. Are you useful to me? What the more reflective, less obviously hungry woman asks is, “What do you want to do?” This empathy lasso is a way to manoeuvre you into a more vulnerable spot, a calculated assumption of dissatisfaction and an expectation of confession.

“Inherit money” isn’t the right answer.

Jane* goes to a lot of female-focused events, and she’s discerned two schools operating in Dublin at the moment. “The first is company-sponsored with an extraordinary cost attached to it,” she says. Think wine that doesn’t require swallowing courage. However, these shindigs can come off a little fake at times. “There often seems as if little care is paid to the audience members,” she observes, noting when there are big name corporate sponsors involved “their role is to financially support the organisation and fostering the talent of the observer is rarely a priority.” Jane’s more a fan of the informal gal hang. “The outcome is dependent on an individual’s tenacity and ferociousness,” she says of her serial coffee dates. But even when you’re both extolling the virtues of a scone, there’s a hollow ringing. “It’s still void of deep and meaningful conversation where the value is equated to more than just what one can obtain from another,” Jane says of the ‘I’ll-hook-you-up-with-X’ vibe.

In fact, the sharing of the black book, or the more likely forwarding of a gmail address, is a contentious issue in women’s circles. “Pisses me off so fucking much,” Emma* types over Messenger. “Have had younger ones fresh out of college starting projects flat out ask me for cool pals numbers and to intro them. I’ve spent years making those friendships and to assume I’ll just give you my stamp of approval after a coffee in Clement & Pekoe is rude.”

Beyond the back-scratching chats, there’s a lot to be said for an environment encouraging women to chat careers. You find out who got a better starting salary. You can get a referral to a new job. Nabbing whatever leverage is out there should be your prerogative. Companies like Salesforce run women-specific events outsiders, including men, can attend. IMAGE Magazine’s Networking Breakfasts occur pretty regularly in city centre hotels, although bear in mind attendance requires a €45 ticket, and the 7am foundation death mask will wreak havoc on your skin the days after. The publication has now branched out to evening events aimed at younger women, hosting panels with the likes of Chupi Sweetman-Durney in the Lighthouse cinema. Green Party TD Catherine Martin is working on a women’s caucus for the Dáil and Seanad and has written to every female member of the Oireachtas with the goal to kick it off towards the end of January. The Facebook group Girl Crew, established by Elva Carri in 2014 after she changed her gender on Tinder to find women to go dancing with, is now worldwide and sees women not just arranging nights out and trips together, but seeking professional guidance and job application tips. The group has even teamed up with Microsoft for events and have been invited to Facebook’s HQ in California to honour their reach and effect. In New York, a space called The Wing opened a few months ago, with a sleepover themed launch party featuring faces and names like Hari Nef, Tina Brown and Leandra Medine. This Manhattan-based members club is dedicated to women meeting up, hanging out and co-working. Membership is between $1,500 and $1,950 a year. Sounds cheaper than a golf habit.

“It’s nice to meet mentors, but it can be intense,” admits NGO worker Marion* of the female networking scene. There’s also a lurking vine of insecurity. “You feel a bit locked out when it comes to Twitter,” she says. The social media app can be a great antidote to the putting-yourself-out-there scene. You can network with women you’ve an inkling you may actually like. Two of my closest friends are girls whose blogs I liked and followed for years. Although with constant Twitter love-ins, there can be an element of ‘you can’t sit with us’. Caitlin* is a freelance writer and finds the public conversation vibe off putting and anxiety-inducing. Why isn’t she in the club? “Take it to the DMs,” is what she has to say about the performance around broadcasting meet-ups and Instagram posts illustrating hotel lobby teas and cakes with the emoji caption of a love heart. (The word “squad”, which I always associated with World War II documentaries, is now out of vogue.)

 

Rachel* is another writer, but thinks you just have to learn to put with this stuff. “I think in Dublin at least, things feel like they’ve been settled long before any of us entered the professional arena,” she muses. “It’s not so much about old girls clubs as flukes and coincidences, which social media help to bring to light. Like, in the same way living in Dublin forces you to be comfortable with exes dating friends or people living in each other’s old rented accommodation or whatever, people will always know each other from somewhere.”

Roisin Agnew, journalist and publisher of Guts magazine, is on the get-over-it team too. “Any form of network predicates that someone is excluded, whether it’s online or in real life,’ she maintains. “That’s not to say that they’re sinister necessarily.”

Yet, she’s not too sure about the value of online networking in general. “After that New York Times article came out about giving up on social media in the wake of the election, I saw a few people take to Twitter to defend it and discuss the positive impact social media had had on their careers,” she recalls. “They were talking about it as an ‘equaliser’, saying it had got them a foot in the door when perhaps they didn’t have the ‘privilege’ to know people in their field of employment beforehand, and not belong to that ‘network’.”

For Roisin, that wasn’t her experience. “I met people in my field because I interned and worked for very little for lots of magazines and websites in Dublin when I first got out of college,” she says. “I feel like ‘showing up’ has more cachet for me, but that’s not really how anything works anymore. I will say though that online networks can be as exclusionary as real life ones, but maybe I’m just jaded and half-cut – ’tis the season.”

Cattily and anecdotally, I’ve been part of private conversations where Twitter as opposed to hard work has been credited as the key to certain female creative’s success, or rather their recognition, fame, call it what you will. That’s the new bar, isn’t it?

Roisin is of a similar mindset: “I talk to a lot of my friends who are artists for whom the internet hasn’t been an equaliser. For many of them it’s a constant source of anxiety. You can be adept at social media and a bad writer, actor, painter, illustrator, and musician. Although that seems almost platitudinous to say, it seems to me people are increasingly less willing to acknowledge that.”

The empress’ clothes are staying on for the time being.

One group of women who found a balance between valuable networking without the speed-dating nerves of it all is Ladies, Wine & Design Dublin, a chapter of a New York initiative founded by the very cool Jessica Walsh of Sagmeister & Walsh. LWD, as it’s known, is “a salon night held monthly limited to eight creative ladies from across all design disciplines. Guests drink wine and enjoy a casual conversations on a wide variety of topics relating to creativity, business, and life.” It’s free to apply – your spare $1,500 is safe – and you email for a place. First come, first served.

Six months ago Aileen Carville, Meagan Hyland and Chloé Hines, all creatives, came together to launch the Dublin version. Social media gave them the idea initially. “I found out about LWD by following Jessica Walsh on Facebook,” Meagan explains. “She had shared a link to the website and mentioned if your city wasn’t listed to get in touch about setting one up. Chloé and I thought why not us to be the ones to run it and emailed New York. It was Sagmeister’s offices that put us in touch with Aileen who had the same idea and thought we should run it together. We grabbed a coffee back in May and took it from there.”

The intimate format’s key, says Meagan. “You put too many people in a room and inevitably two or three begin to dominate the conversation and the quieter ones slink back and just listen,” she observes. Aileen adds the smaller meet ups mean they can discuss more niche themes, pointing to recent dinners where Kathryn Wilson led a conversation on Identity Branding and one about the power and resurgence of print with Aisling Farinella of Thread Magazine and Roisin Agnew.

I guess the moral is this: female networking is fraught. It is not an automatic exchange of empathy – or emails. But when it’s done well, it makes us fell less adrift. The wine also helps. And, remember everyone is in the room for the same reason. They want to connect with somebody. Unless, you’re Grace O’Malley, then you’ll talk to the the most important wagon in the land for the chance to get your money back.

*Some names have been changed

Words: Jeanne Sutton

Illustrations: Jay MacDonnell

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