GENDER SPECIFIC NETWORKING – Mind the Gap

By Laura Weis on 15-05-2018



Despite increasing efforts to remove practices preventing women from moving up the organizational hierarchy, women remain underrepresented in senior management positions. There is still talk of limited social mobility, unequal opportunities and the importance of smashing glass ceilings holding back women.

Several explanations have been put forward for this enduring gender gap. One argument that has recently received considerable attention is that women do not have the same access to career enhancing networks as men. Networks, defined as informal relations connecting individuals and groups of individuals, are increasingly relevant in organizations. A recent report published by the British Psychological Society (BPS) revealed that of those women who made it to the top of the corporate chain, their ability to build, maintain and use social capital was the key to their success. Academic studies have shown that establishing powerful networks is beneficial for many reasons including increased motivation, social support, performance and individual career opportunities. Crucially, these studies provide evidence that men and women differ in the structure of their personal networks, as well as in the rewards gained from them. For instance, men often have a greater number of instrumental ties, relationships that provide job-related resources, while women have a greater number of expressive ties, relationships that provide emotional and social support. Consequently, women tend to have smaller networks of stronger relationships, while men see their networks as a way to get ahead and are more interested in what the relationship can yield. Women like to get along with others, men ahead of others. 


Furthermore, while men prefer to network with other men on both expressive and instrumental contents, women often choose other women for expressive contents only and prefer to go to males for instrumental contents. 


This has two important consequences: 


• Since men seek friendship from those men who also provide access to organizational resources, they build so called “multiplex relations”, characterised by the exchange of both personal and professional resources. These relationships are shown to be key in the process of becoming a senior leader. But women do not tend build multiplex ties as frequently, preventing themselves from building the deep, trusting relationships with powerful men (and women) that are often necessary for promotion, in particular in high level jobs were performance is hard to predict. 


• The preference of both males and females to have instrumental relations with males, results in females rarely being in informal/natural roles of influence (e.g. advice or information giving). This underrepresentation in informal influence positions may negatively affects women’s ability to construct a credible leader identity. 


Also, in settings where men predominate in positions of power, women often have a smaller pool of high-status individuals (women and man) to draw on. This difference partly stems from a reluctance of women to undertake the instrumental activities required to build a strong network.                   Why? Women often fear that these activities will appear inauthentic and overly instrumental. 


Is this fear justified? Research suggests yes. Successful females are often judged much harsher compared to males and are seen as more aggressive, self-promoting, and power-hungry and are thus penalized in the form of social rejection. 


In spite of these challenges, some women rise to leadership positions, but structural obstacles and cultural biases continue to influence their progress and leadership experiences. As women climb up the corporate ladder, they become increasingly scarce making them more visible. This subjects women to greater scrutiny, leading them to become risk-averse, overly focused on details, and prone to micromanage, often preventing them to step up to the top level. 


The above explained network phenomena remain fairly unaddressed challenges to women and receiving one-on-one mentoring and training only, is not likely to lead to advancement. Women need to network differently and be given opportunities to do so. The network literature suggests women need to network upwards to more powerful people more often. Women’s natural networking and high EQ skills are a great professional asset, but mainly when used strategically. Yet, women often shrink back from tactically using that skill, or feel unable to harness it. Companies should give women permission, encouragement and opportunities to build powerful inter- and intra-organizational networks. ‘Who you know and who knows you’ is responsible for a large percentage of career progression and women’s limited access to powerful networks, as well as prevailing hesitation about strategic networking, represents an often overlooked barrier to their opportunities. 

Dr Laura Weis 


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