If you have a White Collar job (no matter how low or high in the pay scale or in the corporate hierarchy), chances are you’ve been told of the importance of networking to advance your career. This idea of networking is so ingrained in our Western notions of work and corporate life that we almost never question what they mean and the type of models they advance. We know we need to get out and network, and we do so, with more or less gusto depending on our inclinations for social interactions and small talk.
We attend specific trade industry events, conferences and exhibitions or informal after hours get togethers organized by people whose love of networking turn them into de facto evangelizers and matchmakers. We do it because we are told “we have to”. But what are the dynamics of these “networking events” or opportunities? Who gets to participate? Who gets invited? What kind of gender roles do we need to play/ represent in order to consider the event a success for our potential advancement? What kind of class and racial dynamics are at play in these notions of “networking”? How is knowledge shared and whose knowledge is given preeminence?
Lots of questions, right? And I, of course, am not going to answer them, but I am certainly going to posit a few theories.
I contend that the idea of “networking” as it is currently presented and promoted in our Western business environments is, you guessed it, a form of Patriarchy light for business people. Moreover, as it plays out, more often than not, it is a form of White Patriarchy light. Because, let’s ask the crude question here: how truly diverse are these events? We tend to get together with people with whom we identify, with people with whom we feel we share “something”. These events, and I am specifically referring to “social events” in the form of cocktail parties, after hours soirees, corporate sponsored opportunities to “mingle” (often organized as a bonus to exhibitions and industry specific trade shows) are homogeneous in presentation (dress codes) but also in etiquette and forms of relating to other participants. I have yet to see, in my decades long participating in corporate culture, an invitation that merely mentioned accommodations made for disabled people (just to use one obvious glaring example).
Professors Andreas Wimmer and Kevin Lewis, from UCLA, released last year an extensive study on the homophily of social network data (link goes to PDF, although I must warn the casual reader: this is an arid paper, and not really what I would choose for light entertainment). The paper presents research in the area of racial homogeneity in social networks and the preference for associating with individuals of the same racial background (i.e. racial homophily). If these social networks are reflective of our “real life” networks (and I have no reason to doubt that they are, for the most part), then what does it say about networking, as a whole, when people associate only with those of the same racial background? How truly diverse will networking events be when the pool of participants will be drawn from our pre-existing connections?
Also, as women, we are specifically prone to “dress code” politics. If we deviate from these supposed dress codes assigned for women, how successful are our networking opportunities going to turn? What about drinking? (A behavior often encouraged and expected in men attending these kinds of events). How many queer folks are usually part of these networks? And by queer I mean, either gender queer, or trans*, or really anyone who somewhat does not conform to the gender binary.
And that brings me to the last subject in the title of this post: immigrants and actually, ethnic minorities. Not only do immigrants and other ethnic minorities need to contend with all the exclusionary factors mentioned above, but, for those brave ones who do venture, there is the added pressure to express themselves in the “proper language”.
(Personal anecdote time, because my own experience in this might be illustrative of what I am trying to convey. Some years ago, I was invited to a “networking event” organized by an institution that functions as an incubator for entrepreneurs and the creative industry here in Amsterdam. It was a dinner with another 250 participants, all drawn from marketing agencies, creative developers, communications, etc. I arrived, looking dapper, in my best business garb. As I walked through the lobby, where the crowd was waiting for the doors to open, I felt a wave of anxiety sweeping in: everyone was native Dutch. And they looked so different than me. And believe me when I say this: I can be quite mainstream looking when I need to, you know, suit, heels, etc. But I just do not look Northern European. And when I am the only one in a crowd, I stick out. I also speak differently. I have an accent. And native Dutch people are not exactly forgiving or understanding towards those who sound very foreign. I panicked. Here I was, usually loud and pretty self confident, amid a moment of intense anxiety. To make matters worse, I was alone, and I had no one to talk to. I spent a good ten minutes standing there, with a drink in my hand; I must have looked terrified, I guess. In the end, I walked away without participating).
However, when immigrants, and even more so, immigrant women dealing with these sometimes hostile environments, decide to overcome limitations by relating to one another, by creating bonds within a community, by participating in intra community events (be it in Churches, Mosques, community centers or specific NGOs and foundations), they will be accused on “not integrating”, of “keeping to their own”. Because, you know, when members of the dominant culture get together, we call it “networking”. But when minorities do the same, they will be portrayed as isolationist and a threat to national identities.