5 Tips to Build Connections and Inspire Inclusivity in the Workplace

Melissa Ruth standing with the Emerson Cricket Team in Singapore I recently participated in an “Ask Me Anything” panel hosted by one of Emerson’s Women in STEM groups.  One relevant question that popped up during the panel was, “Men often tend to gravitate towards other men socially – how can a woman break into the ‘Boys Club’?” I was passionate about fielding this question because most of my teammates are men which means my social network (at work) is comprised primarily of men. Based on my experiences, I find that the key to becoming “one of the guys” is more about interpersonal skills than about gender. So, I hope anyone – man or woman – reading this from the industrial, manufacturing or energy sectors can relate to my thoughts below.

These five suggestions have helped me form relationships at work, not just as a gender minority, but also in situations when it can seem challenging to make a genuine connection.

1. Find Common Ground: It’s no surprise that people seek connections with those they share something in common with: a shared experience like living abroad, a shared interest like a favorite sports team or a mutual background like an alma mater. These commonalities can accelerate bonds and provide ample conversation topics over long work dinners and delayed flights. In my experience, so-called “Boys Clubs” often occur as a result of men quickly looking for these conversation starters and finding someone who, as an example, is just as excited to visit Augusta National as they are. So, as a female in this environment, I try to learn more about my male colleagues and then express my enthusiasm when I discover that (for example) we both lived in Singapore, we both love Dr. Pepper or we both cheer for the University of Oklahoma Sooners.

2. Take the Initiative: The “Boys Club” membership card doesn’t just magically appear, you have to engage. Don’t automatically default to talking to that friend you already know in the room – make your presence known. For some this takes an extra dose of confidence; for most, including me, this takes practice. When I was starting my career, I found it helpful to think of 2-3 conversation topics or stories prior to a networking session or big meeting. That way, if natural dialogue seemed challenging, I had a few conversation catalysts – like a recent news story or complex meeting topic from earlier in the day to fall back on.

3. Express (or Create) Shared Recreational Interests: Entering any “club,”not only requires initiative to engage in group conversation, but also group activities. If there is a golf outing and you are an avid or aspiring golfer and want to join, let the organizers know! If golf isn’t your thing, suggest or even plan an activity that is more up your alley. Personally, I have found karaoke to be a great team bonding activity that everyone enjoys. Or, use this as an opportunity to try something new. While living in Singapore, my coworkers shared a passion for cricket. So, we formed an Emerson cricket team, which was a very fun and rewarding experience.

4. Invest the Time: Like all friendships, forming relationships with coworkers doesn’t always happen overnight. Throughout my career, I have held numerous positions which have required extensive travel. There are plenty of times after a full day of meetings and group dinners where I can feel the jet lag creeping in and I see visions of the many unread emails in my Inbox. Then, I see a group of (usually male) coworkers headed towards the bar for last call. I’m not advocating pulling an all-nighter or ignoring urgent requests here. However, these extra conversations can help you learn more about the business, your coworkers and their projects. They also show that you value their comradery and provide additional, more casual opportunities for your colleagues to learn about and from you, too. If you need some extra ideas on how to make genuine connections with your work colleagues, I recommend this article: 11 ways to make genuine work connections that will help your career.

5. Don’t get Discouraged: If you can’t find a common interest at first, keep engaging and probing until you find a shared interest. A few years ago, I was struggling to find a connection with a group of coworkers who were at a different stage of life than me. Eventually, I shared that I had recently gotten my scuba diving certification and learned they were passionate divers eager to share their tips and experiences.

In the quest of breaking down stereotypes, it’s best for everyone to leave unconscious biases behind and get to know each person as an individual. For example, my current (male) boss has no interest in American football or golf and rarely eats meat. However, he has seen every new film release and is extremely proud of his daughter. As the mother of the most adorable two-year-old girl on the planet, that’s some common ground I can stand on. If you want to learn more about how unconscious bias look to this article: Unconscious bias in the workplace you can’t afford to ignore.

There may be some luck involved, but I have found “clubs” to be friendly and inclusive once I made some effort. As women, it’s equally important that we be conscientious about creating accidental “Girls Clubs.” Ideally, everyone should work to help foster diverse and inclusive social networks based on shared interests and goals. I hope in the near future, less education and effort will be needed as both men and women become more aware of the social dynamics in the workplace. Now, karaoke, anyone?