The Hurdles Women Face when Networking

A piece of advice people often hear is that, if they want to build their career, they should network. However, this type of fit-all-size advice is not very helpful for women since it does not consider the specific hurdles that they face when networking.

Women’s Organizational Networks

Social scientists have observed a robust pattern in people’s social interactions that they call “preference for homophily” [1]: People prefer to interact with people who are like them (i.e., who share similar hobbies, education, or worldviews…). This preference, of course, also applies to gender: On average, men prefer to interact with other men, and women with other women. This preference for homophily, however, can be problematic for women’s career: In a world in which men are over-represented in positions of power, it means that women will form fewer connections with powerful people than their male counterparts. Research tends to confirm this trend [2-4]: Compared to men, women typically lack access to strategic people, key resources, and sponsors to promote them at the upper level.

Worse, the fact that women are more likely to be friends with other women might not only stem from this preference for homophily, but also reflect unique obstacles that they are facing when building friendships with men [5,6].

Key Networking Strategy for Women

To overcome this problem, women have to build a different type of relationship: They must forego their preference for gender homophily and engage in networking actions aimed at strengthening relationships with their (male) bosses, supervisors, or managers. For example, while this is not something that they would naturally do, they may make an effort to have lunch with their boss, invite them for dinner, send them greeting cards or gifts on special occasions, engage in informal conversations with them about non-work related topics, or socialize with them outside of work.

Is Networking Harder for Women?

However, these deliberate networking actions may present specific hurdles for women. When women are too friendly with their managers, it can activate a negative stereotype: That of the “temptress” or “seductress”, a woman willing and able to use her charm to influence men of power. Research suggests that when women are stereotyped as such, they are harshly judged [7]: They are perceived to be promiscuous, flirtatious, seductive, manipulative, and scheming, and are judged as cold, immoral, and incompetent. This may lead women to think twice before networking with their male senior colleagues.

In one of my research projects, I investigated this specific question: Are women less likely to engage in network-deepening actions with a male supervisor for fear of being misjudged? Here is what I found:

First, men and women are both reluctant to deepen relationships with a supervisor, regardless of its gender. This suggests that people are uncomfortable at the idea of “networking up”: Despite the benefits attached to such a networking strategy, building personal relationships with people higher up in the corporate ladder is something they prefer to avoid.

Second, this reluctance seems stronger for women. This is consistent with the expectations people have about men’s and women’s behavior. While men are expected to be agentic (i.e., ambitious, assertive, instrumental, aggressive, and decisive), women are expected to be communal (i.e., kind, helpful, sympathetic, friendly, and unselfish). Those gender norms can make it more difficult for women to engage in behaviors that would help them rise in the social hierarchy, such as showing confidence, being assertive, self-promoting or negotiating. For the same reasons, women might avoid building instrumental relationships with supervisors and other influential organizational members for fear of violating those gender norms and being socially sanctioned.

Third, men and women both prefer networking with organizational members of the same gender. Again, this preference has stronger consequences for women: Since men are more likely than women to be in positions of power, it means that women are less likely to build connections with influential organizational members.

Finally, both men and women seem concerned about their reputation when networking with someone of the opposite gender: They fear being seen as “promiscuous,” “flirtatious”, or “seductive”. For women, this fear is stronger when networking with a supervisor (rather than a colleague). For men, the opposite is true: This fear is stronger when networking with a colleague (rather than a supervisor). One way to interpret this pattern is that women fear being seen as manipulative (obtaining power through sex), and that men fear being seen as exploitative (obtaining sex through power).

What to Conclude from these Results?

The fact that men expressed fear for their image when networking with female colleagues might be a consequence of the #MeToo movement. In the wake of the movement, several surveys found that men felt uncomfortable at the idea of spending time with female colleagues (e.g., working alone with women, socializing with them, or mentoring them), and were concerned of being unfairly accused of sexual harassment [8–10].

This reaction to the #MeToo movement could have unintended, but severe, consequences for women’s career. If women are reluctant to build stronger relationships with their male supervisors, and if men are reluctant to build stronger relationships with their female colleagues, it will ultimately be very difficult for women to build the connections that would give them visibility and access to valuable resources.

What can Organizations do to help Women build Stronger Networks?

The first recommendation would be to ensure that women are represented at all levels of seniority. Very often, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts are focused on recruiting more women (without placing them in positions of power) [11], or on increasing the number of women only in the C-suite (to polish the company’s public image) |12]. However, none of these policies will make it easier for women to climb the corporate ladder. To truly promote gender equality within organizations, companies should ensure that women can find and connect to other women who can sponsor them at the upper level, at all stages of their career.

Second, my research confirms that gender-neutral networking advice such as “become friends with your boss” or “make yourself noticeable” is not very helpful for women, as it does not consider the specific hurdles that they face. Instead, it would be more fruitful to think of solutions that would level the networking field. Since women are less often included in networking activities outside of work (e.g., playing golf at lunch time, going for drinks after work hours…), it might be fruitful to facilitate networking at work: Organize “speed networking” or “meet-and-greet” events across business units, adopt an internal social network (e.g., Yammer), or create mentorship programs.

To go further…


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Zoé Ziani
Zoé Ziani

PhD in Organizational Behavior