Linda Tiger was describing her work in food service when she got tongue-tied. "Sorry, I am so nervous," she told the group of 18 women gathered around a table. Several spoke up to reassure her and urged her to go on. She smiled and finished.
Later, some of the women offered ways that they build confidence: They dress better, read motivational books and meditate. One woman said she tapes a list of her job skills to the wall next to her bathroom mirror.
Networking among women in Orange County often includes this type of personal support. The gathering Tiger attended recently in Tustin was formed to allow women to share job-hunting tips. The women are all changing careers or re-entering the work force. By the end of the meeting, the group had discussed jobs, marriage and divorce.
That interweaving of the personal and the professional is what makes women's networking techniques so different from men's.
"In general, women know fewer people but know them more intimately," said Francesca Cancian, a sociology professor at UC Irvine who studies gender roles. "Men know more people on a more superficial level, and for certain transactions--in business, for example--those weak ties are all you need."
That can make men more efficient business networkers, Cancian says, because the aim of their conversation is to get information.
While the generalization seems too neat, it often fits. Recently, two men met at a gathering in Newport Beach for businesswomen and men interested in trade with Singapore. One was a food-service consultant, the other handles public relations for a land developer. Within two minutes, the men described what they did, mentioned what they were looking for in Singapore and traded business cards.
"Men network more off the top of their heads, where women are more apt to sit down in a circle and bare their souls," explains Barbara Prouty, president of Women in Management, one of Orange County's most successful networking groups.
That tendency to want personal conversation--along with career tips and contacts--has resulted in the formation of several networking organizations for Orange County women: Women in Business, Women in Communications, the local chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners.
The Tustin group, which first met in March, is so new that it doesn't have a name. The women met through a service called Women's Focus that helps those changing careers. Two clients, Janet Padilla and Bette Flick, decided they wanted to get together to share stories and tips, so they tacked a notice on the Women's Focus bulletin board.
By contrast, Prouty's group is one of the oldest at 18 years. It grew out of a pioneering class at UC Irvine, offered by Helen Diamond in the early 1970s for female managers. Today, that group has spawned chapters in San Diego, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys.
The meetings are a monthly dinner with a speaker. Prouty said the emotional sharing that is common in newly formed groups remains in hers as well.
"We've had women come in and get teary-eyed" at their first meeting, Prouty said. "The nurturing that women provide to others is what (women) really need themselves."
Prouty and other experts offer advice for such groups:
* Keep the group diverse. Prouty said a group composed only of women searching for work can be too negative.
* Don't think you must include the opposite sex. For relaxed conversation, single-sex groups may work best, said Cancian, the UCI sociologist. "To a large extent, men and women have different cultures," she said.
* Talk about feelings. This may be less efficient in the short run, but it helps you re-evaluate your career and other important parts of life, Cancian said. Too many men wake up at 55 "with heart trouble, hardly knowing their children," she said.
* Be flexible about the meeting's agenda. Each group should respond to the needs of its particular members, said Flick, co-founder of the Tustin group. She added that the meeting should, however, have ground rules. Long-winded complaints, for example, are out of bounds.
* Hold round-table talks instead of breaking into one-on-one exchanges. Group discussion is more dynamic, said Gerald Goodman, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA.
Goodman said the group talks are especially good for people who are feeling frustrated or discouraged. The discussion gives each person a chance to contribute advice, and that can lead to better problem-solving skills outside the group.
"That sense of empowerment filters into a person's daily life," he said.