Women's networking. The talk on the town

This is truly the “age of the networker”, and no-one is making better use of networking than women. They do not have the historical advantages of an old boy's network, but it seems to come naturally.

With an increasing number of women in the workforce, several women's networks have sprung up in recent years. There is a distinction between the natural networking that most of us do all day – at the coffee machine, in the pub and so on – and the more proactive approach, which demands energy, graft and discipline. Networking on a systematic basis requires research and databasing.

With the nature of work changing and the “job for life” in decline, women's networks were originally set up to provide a way for professional women to meet others in similar roles in order to reduce the feeling of isolation, to share experiences and give support to colleagues.

According to Sundridge Park Management Centre, British women are more stand-offish than their US counterparts, but use networks to learn from their colleagues in more senior positions over long periods, perhaps to compensate for the lack of an old boy's network. But whereas UK women hover at the fringes, US women will work the room, trading cards. One of the laws of networking is that working a room cuts both ways – you have to give in order to receive.

Women are generally more attuned to the new soft skills, more sensitive to informal networks within organisations and communities and more adaptable to change, the one constant of the modern age. Yet they still need to cultivate mentors, engage in training and foster contacts to catch up with men.

Susan Bloch, a career consultant, believes a well-developed network of contacts is vital for the effective marketing of “Me plc”. She says: “Just as organisations need to measure performance, individuals need to do the same if they are to manage their careers successfully. Networking is a crucial element in answering the important questions: 'Who am I?' 'Where am I now?' 'Where do I want to get to?' and 'How do I get there?'”

Women often feel isolated, and even though those in more junior roles often do not feel the need, it is vital to network in order to broaden your outlook and build social capital for the future. The most important law of networking is to use it before you need it.

Irene Harris founded Network in 1981 for women in middle management and Club 2000 for those in senior management having become increasingly frustrated by being refused membership to a number of men's clubs. She says: “Networking is about building up a circle of contacts. It is fluid and goes on forever.”

Jane Calvert-Lee, of the CBI, holds weekly lunches on a variety of subjects enabling people from one sector to share experiences with another. To ensure she has a good crop of people to invite, she always prepares herself before attending other networks by researching into who she should talk to and on what subjects she should put into her network memory bank.

Carole Stone, a former BBC producer, is another successful networker. Her strength lies in her ability to remember everyone's name and what they do for a living, and in developing relationships. Above all, she is totally unselfish with her time and knowledge.

Stone has discovered another law of networking – it says that repeated interaction rather than pursuit of immediate pay-back encourages cooperation. It really is what you put in, not “what's in it for me?”

She says: “I think the term networking is over used. I do it without really thinking about it. But I gather together groups of six to eight people who I think would like to meet each other and I get a kick out of it.”

Today, networking is more important than ever. If you make the effort, it can improve not only your work, but also your life. It should be more than gossip, contacts and alcohol.