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“Business networking”, career women and “the non-integrated immigrant”

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.


  1. Laughingrat wrote:

    Yes! I think this is really important to talk about, all the more so because the dreaded “networking” is basically everywhere now, even in non-profit fields. Networking just functions to enforce social norms and reinforce the cycle of privilege. It’s really not much different from the Old Boys Network that our mothers (well, my mom anyway) used to complain about.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Indeed, it’s a similar set up to the Old Boys Network. I think the main difference is that now we are being told that this is “inclusive” and that everyone should participate.

    Someone commented earlier on to me that there is another factor in exclusion that I didn’t touch upon: mental health and anxiety issues. For how many people attendance to this sort of events is, in some cases, actually detrimental to their well being. And of course there are no accommodations made to include these folks, you know, working with them so that they can manage their participation. So really, it’s a significant number of people who are never part of this networking culture.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Aliaras wrote:

    Oh lord, this.

    I am a student working at a place which is the exception to every rule in an older, het, cis white male industry. We’re that way because our bosses are good, the school’s culture is good, and the culture of the particular workplace is as welcoming as we can make it.

    But sometimes, people have to come in to get some work done. They’re government or contractors, people deep in the industry. They all have similar backgrounds, they’re all male. My boss used to be one of them, and they’ll all get around and talk, and it’s always a fascinating and fun time until I realize that I’m not and will never be part of that group.

    They’ll do things like talk about their wives, in that way that men like that do. It’s uncomfortable, and I’m clearly not invited. This is without going into things like asking me to smile, and in general treating me like their 10 year old granddaughter who learned how to do this really cool thing (my job requires a professional license, and I’ve had it for a bit. They can fuck right off).

    This doesn’t even get into figuring out how to present, how to make smalltalk about my life. I’m XX and queer through and through. Do I go in honest, androgynous, all the things I normally do without thinking? Butch it up to try to be one of the men? Or retreat to femme and keep with people’s expectations?

    And people wonder why I hate socializing.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Glittertrash wrote:

    I am, or often participate in being, a white collar professional of the tech field variety. I had a total “ah-HAH!” moment of recognising the immensity and specificity of my workplace privilege when my work moved, as seemed fairly natural after 10 years in the field, from the doing-things area (programming/developing/etc) to the planning-and-communicating-around-doing-things area. Suddenly it became EXTREMELY APPARENT to me that I was being paid a higher rate than the designers/programmers/engineers to, basically, talk to people. Organise meetings! Make sure communication is happening between different business units! Do the communication! Make the plans! Keep everyone in line with the plans! Be good at that!
    And the reason I was good at that was because despite some shortcomings (queer, funny-looking, female-bodied), I was made of The Right Kind Of Person For Corporate Communication. I was born in the right area, speak with the right regional accent, went to the right high school, then went to the right university, then did the right kind of extra-curricular organising, then read the right industry mags, and knew the right in-jokes. All of that without ever trying, or striving- actually, the opposite- this kind of work is as easy for me as remembering how to lace my shoes, because I have spent my life being trained for a role like this by every single fact of my birth, upbringing, education and work history. I am ‘the right kind of person’ by virtue of being the SAME KIND of person as the people my job required me to communicate with.
    My job went from making things, in which my competence might be measured against quasi-objective yardsticks like Does It Work, to talking about things, in which my competence is measured by completely subjective things like Is Everyone Happy And Comfortable And Feeling Like Spending Money On This?
    While I can see that I became good at programming by working hard and learning difficult things, I can also see that I am considered ‘good’ at ‘communications’ by virtue of nothing I have set out to learn, no set of skills I have set out to acquire, but just because of the kind of person I am/have been raised to be. Which is (among other things) white, and highly educated, and dripping with all the interpersonal tools and easy assumptions of the white collar middle class. Not everybody who does my job is white, but they sure as hell all went to the same kind of schools as I did (insert white Australian panic about over-representation of immigrant communities in our academically-advanced-stream schools here!).
    So I often look at my work life and think, right: it’s not that I’m NOT good at my job, it’s not that I DIDN’T work hard to get here, it’s not that I haven’t faced any barriers to being a funny-looking queer woman in the corporate workplace: but a lot of other kinds of people would have to work a fuck of a lot harder than I did to even get a look in, here. Because this workplace is about reinforcing and rewarding comfortable sameness. Because my job consists, basically, of conversing with and reinforcing the privileges of a lot of people who are just like me so that they feel safe in entrusting their department budgets into the hands of people who are just like them.
    So, oddly enough, in the slightly lower paid realms of People Who Make Things, I can identify a decent diversity of people in my workplaces. In the realm of The People Who Talk About Making The Things? We’re here because we are similar.
    That was my a-HAH moment. I’m still working on what to do with it. I am dubious of my capacity to create greater inclusivity in corporate spaces (cue image of funny-looking queer woman still desperately and anxiously trying to hold her own in the corner at industry networking events!) but I know I need to try.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  5. clew wrote:

    Is the obligation to ‘network’ privatizing something employers used to do, or subsidizing some protected little niche? I’m imagining a three-legged stool of kyriarchy, ideology, profit.

    Also, without scare quotes, networking should be great — it should be practice in finding common ground with anyone I have even one thing in common with, rather than sticking only to those I have the most in common with. (And I have much in common with any mortal!)

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Travis wrote:

    I have never, ever liked the idea that networking is “something you can learn”, because I don’t think it really can. You can practice elevator speeches and small talk, learn what a good business card looks like and when to hand it off, and acclimate yourself over time to tiresome, lonely social situations so you feel less uncomfortable each time.

    But the idea that making meaningful connections with people is a “skill” is, in my experience, something that you’re told to explain the fact that networking isn’t getting you anywhere, because you need to get “better” at it.

    But as I understand it, the practice of networking is a response to the truism that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”–you’re trying to get people to “know you” so they’ll vouch for you when some opportunity comes up. If you can demonstrate honesty and competence, make someone trust you, you’ve got an “in”.

    Which is where the networking industry shows its true colors. Who do the capital-owners instinctively mistrust? Women, people of color, the genderqueer, the young, people with disabilities, and so on. Who do the powerful people of today (and yesterday) consider less competent? Women, people of color, people with accents, PWMD, etc. But it’s their fault no one trusts them (it might even be their fault that if asked, the people who don’t trust them can’t even see past their prejudices to explain WHY they don’t trust you), so they should become better networkers.

    That’s a lot of words to say “I totally agree”, but it’s worth noting the specifics of the practice have a built in Patriarichal “blame the victim” safety net for the privileged captitalists.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  7. ziggy wrote:

    very good piece… there are so many small ways through which Other can be excluded from the social fabric of networks, even if they share the same educational background and (type of) occupation. I am currently doing some research into how educational institutions play a role in creating/teaching certain embodied styles and modes of speech that would enable their students to get along in (mostly international) networking. Of course, Western/US standards of speech, of dress, of “carrying the body” are extremely prevalent, which is problematic for the international students (from Africa, China, Indonesia etc.) that seek education and jobs here.

    Also, I am from the Netherlands and currently residing here.. and was wondering where you met the unforgiving Dutch you talked about. I am sorry you had that experience! But it seemed weird to me you should run into those, especially at such network meetings, where people generally speak English. I know the Dutch love to “tolerate”, i.e. ignore people and things they don’t approve of (which is a problematic way of bringing tolerance into practice), but i was just curious to know in what ways you sometimes feel excluded from this society! (just trying to learn something!)

    thanks for a great post!

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink
  8. Ziggy, let me be clear on this: the unforgiving Dutch were not at this event, at least that I know of. I ran away before anyone even had the chance to talk to me!

    As for where the unforgiving Dutch are? Well, I could tell you about the drunk Rotterdammer who punched me in the face while screaming “Kut allochtoon” (cunt foreigner) while I was in a tram with my partner, or the non drunk one in the market in Blaak (also Rotterdam) who elbowed me in the stomach while screaming “Jij moet Nederlands spreken” (you MUST speak Dutch!) while I was speaking Spanish with a friend; or if you prefer less violent ones, the Dutch butcher shop owner a few weeks ago, here in Amsterdam, who made fun of my accent in front of a full shop when I asked if he had duck (he made me repeat the question three times before I looked at him and just said “Cuack cuack!”). Or, if you prefer, the council member from D66 (a party where I sometimes attend meetings and events), who made me repeat the words “human trafficking” several times before lecturing me extensively about how I knew nothing of the subject (or any social subject for that matter) because I was using the “wrong words” (he made a point of stressing the fact that the concept of “human trafficking” is wrong as I was using the English words due to a momentarily lapse of memory and, instead, he pointed out, if I wanted to use the “proper” concept, I should talk of “mensenhandeling”; all of this while belittling me and insisting I know nothing of human rights or feminism because of my wrong use of words). Most good Dutch people are horrified when they hear these experiences from immigrants (I know my partner was until he witnessed them himself). But you know, I experienced them enough times to know that these things happen and sadly, they happen often.

    And if we want to discuss the “feelings of exclusion” from this society, we could also talk about the specific laws that I have to comply with, just because I am a “niet Westerse allochtoon” (Non Western Foreigner); or you know, the daily headlines all over Dutch media specifically mentioning the scourge of “Non Western Foreigners” on this society. I can assure you all of this is more than enough to make the most mild mannered and optimist person feel alienated.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  9. Mazarine wrote:

    Wow. I had no idea that some dutch people were so xenophobic and horrible!

    Friday, June 10, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  10. In fairness, the Dutch are not worse than the rest of Europeans. The xenophobia I describe is happening across the entire continent these days. There has been a turn to the right (and in some cases the extreme right) in the past 10+ years. Some people reflect this turn with their actions and attitudes.

    Saturday, June 11, 2011 at 3:12 am | Permalink
  11. ziggy wrote:

    hi flavia, thanks for enlightening me with some of your observations on the dutch. so sorry you had to go through what must have been extremely painful encounters. it tells me a lot about my racial and class privilege that i do not seem to even know people that would so such things. still i apologize. and yes, you are right about the horrible tone characterizing today’s discourse on non-western immigrants – holland is not the place it used to be (early to late 90s seems the cut-off point for a certain kind of multiculturalism). as for how this is a more european-wide development: yes, certainly. but i am sorry you had to go through this in the netherlands.

    Monday, June 13, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink