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How to Build and Maintain a Support Network—Planning for When You Need Help

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Jennifer Bray explains why developing a support network can be critical for women in STEM fields, and shows you how to go about developing a network, even if networking and socializing aren't your strong suit.
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Women in Science Technology Engineering and Medicine (STEM) are often analytical thinkers who are great at planning. We plan projects, plan work and plan our careers. We are constantly planning and organizing, but do we plan for personal support?

Women in STEM can be in the minority. This has some advantages: we stand out from the crowd. Men who make their careers in STEM can struggle to be noticed but we will be marked out and recognized. Even casual passing acquaintances remember me and recognize my name because I’m a woman engineer, and in my field women are few and far between. However, there is a flip side to being in a minority: having a huge number of people know your name is not the same as having a huge number of people who are ready to support you. When you are in a minority it is easy to fall into the trap of being both very well known and very isolated.

You might wonder why this would be an issue. Anyone who chooses a career that is not typical for their group probably has a strong will and a healthy dose of independence. If you know what you want and are well on the way to getting it why should you worry about being isolated? Isn’t a degree of isolation a natural consequence of the path you’ve chosen?

If you think being isolated is par for the course in your profession, then I’d like to point out some of the benefits you can get from building a support network.

Advice and problem solving - Your problem solvers don’t even have to be in your field: many times I’ve solved a problem as I was describing it to someone else because the very act of explaining gave me the different viewpoint I needed to see the solution I’d missed before.

Reducing stress in a crisis - There is an old saying that trouble shared is trouble halved. It’s not literally true, but it certainly feels like it. Having people who will help you in a crisis, even if only by lending a sympathetic ear, will work wonders for reducing your stress levels. You may not be in a crisis at the moment, and perhaps there is nothing but blue skies on the horizon, but surely it’s better to be ready for possible problems rather than wait until you’re hip deep in trouble before you realize that planning for a little help would have been a good idea.

Mentoring - This can benefit both sides, as teaching gives you a new and valuable perspective. In most martial arts you can only progress through the higher levels by teaching. There is a good reason for this: when you try to teach a subject you look at it in a different way and you learn it more deeply yourself. Mentoring is a two way relationship that benefits both sides: the inexperienced person gets the benefit of their mentor’s longer view, and the mentor gets the benefit of a fresh viewpoint, and also learns from the very act of teaching.

Practical help - Practical help can take many forms. It can include personal help such as sharing lifts or babysitting. You’ll also find that if you’ve taken the time and trouble to build good connections with people they’ll be more inclined to help with work matters and prioritize the items that you need. Be careful because calling in personal favors can sometimes cross the border into unethical behavior, but at other times helping you is not going to hurt anyone else. For example, I have used connections to get information I needed faster than I could possibly access it on my own.

Identify Groups

If I’ve convinced you that building a support network to combat isolation is a good idea, what should you actually do about it? People are social animals by their nature, so it is almost inevitable that you’ll get to know some useful people just by living your daily life. But forming a deliberate strategy of building a network and targeting any areas where you are isolated will give you more, better and deeper connections that will bring extra benefits beyond just bumping into people as you go about your daily life.

The first thing to do is to identify groups where you can find people to add to your support network.  There are no rules here: family, friends, colleagues, competitors, suppliers—anyone you meet is potentially part of your support network. Here are some unlikely examples:

  • I urgently needed performance data on a wireless network, and couldn’t find a contractor. I was chatting with a friend at a local motorcycle club. His day job involved biochemistry experiments, and he asked if he could help. We worked together to design and carry out the series of experiments and found that the analytical skills from his biochemistry work were ideal for analyzing the experimental data I needed. Because of our connection through the bike club he worked through the weekend to get my data in on time. I gained by getting good quality work done at very short notice. He gained a contract he wouldn’t otherwise have even tendered for, and widened his experience. When I told him my problems, I was just letting off steam. I didn’t anticipate that a biochemist from a motorcycle club connection could help with a wireless experiment.
  • My manager wanted me to attend a conference. I was keen to attend too, but I had to look after my daughter and my partner couldn’t stand in as he was away on business. My local pastor asked how my work was going, and I told him about my problems of arranging childcare. All my usual contacts were off on holidays or otherwise engaged. I knew the pastor was busy that night, so I hadn’t expected him to help. But he suggested one of the ladies who ran the Sunday school could babysit for me. She was very willing, and I knew her to be the sort of person I would trust to look after my daughter. With her help I managed to attend the conference. In this case I was using my network (the pastor) and his network too.

Hopefully these examples illustrate that help can come from unexpected places. You should deliberately cultivate a network at work, but don’t neglect other opportunities to make connections. Many career minded women neglect their social lives because they are focussed so strongly on work, but by doing this you fail to enrich your network with people who could make your working life easier. The good news here is that for most women social skills and collaborative tendencies are a big strength, and these are just the qualities you need to building and use a support network.

Make Connections

So if you’ve seen some groups you’d like to network with, how do you actually set about making connections? The first and most obvious thing to do is to find common ground. Social events, clubs, and classes are all places where you can meet and connect with people.  It can be difficult if you’re moving in a male dominated environment and not finding things that suit, so if you don’t find common ground make your own common ground. Ask people what they enjoy. I have a colleague who makes a point of asking people at the first opportunity, “So, what do you do for fun?” and this often leads to him identifying a shared interest. There are many areas where you may have something in common with people: work, children, hobbies, entertainment. Start conversations, invite people to share activities and interests you have in common, and be sure to accept every invitation you possibly can.

Support networks are like plants: it’s not enough to just get a plant—once you have one you have to care for it. Building a support network is not the end; you need to keep your network alive. Maintain it by keeping contact. If you can’t make time for activities at least check in with people and see how they’re doing. Take opportunities to strengthen your connections. Women in STEM are often fiercely independent,  but you must learn to say YES! Accept any help that is offered, even if you think you don’t need it. Take it as an opportunity to build a connection. Exchanging favors is a great way to strengthen a relationship, but of course you have to keep it balanced. Giving favors and help creates obligations, and nobody wants too many of those. Asking for too much help makes you needy and unpopular; giving too much without ever taking back also creates embarrassingly unbalanced relationships that can also push people away. Over time try to balance giving and receiving.

Don’t Forget to Say Thank You

This brings me to the final part of maintaining your support network: acknowledging help. Don’t ever take help for granted. If you need to call upon your network, let them know how they helped, that they made a difference, and that you’re grateful. This can be difficult if you’re not used to thanking and being thanked, but you need to do it; it’s all part of reinforcing connections. Then pat yourself on the back for having the foresight to build the support network so that it was there when you needed it!

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