HomeLearning CenterWomen’s Empowerment in the Workplace Starts with Smarter Networking

Women’s Empowerment in the Workplace Starts with Smarter Networking

Originally published by Benjamin Kessler for George Mason University

Networking is one effective way to bridge the gap, but research shows that women are at an unfair disadvantage in this area. Sarah Wittman, an assistant professor of management at Costello College of Business at George Mason University, unpacks this complex problem and proposes some potential research-based solutions.

Why is it important for women to network as much—and as strategically—as men?

To rise to the top, you have to be known and known of. You have to have social capital—and a social network that makes a difference. Of course, nobody likes to be thought of as “that person”: the person who uses other people for their own advancement. Yet research suggests that in professional networks women are less likely than men to network instrumentally, accumulate instrumental ties and, thus, less likely to have within their networks the powerful people who can help them advance and get things done. Over time, women’s network deficits accumulate: especially in an age of online social media including LinkedIn, if you didn’t connect with colleagues in your last job, you likely aren’t connecting this job. And those people are the ones who know you and could help you land your next job.

What, then, can women do to build useful career networks?

One piece of advice is, of course, to change your mentality—so that networking becomes relationship-building not just contact-accumulation. That fits better with what is expected of women and is less likely to receive backlash. Where networking is “just” relationship-building, it becomes less intimidating and, quite frankly, less grossly utilitarian. Especially when you’re not needing anything now, you can creatively focus on what you might give. Rather than thinking about the resources you might need, think about what resources you might represent for others. The universe repays, and having established contacts when you do need to leverage them is invaluable.

Second, make network-building easy on yourself. Just do it. LinkedIn particularly and other similar online social media are amazing tools because they are both personal and surprisingly impersonal. These days, people link with people they don’t even actually know—but perceive as working in the same industry, or in a relevant function. Linking with those possibly relevant others will not only be low risk (the “no,” if there is one, doesn’t come face-to-face), but where you engage with the platform, the professional content that you produce will allow you and your resources to become known, and known of, across your contacts’ feeds.

It’s easier to start with networks that you legitimately belong to alumni of – your high school, university, or sorority, and people who share some element of your professional past or present (ex- or present colleagues). You never know who is doing what, and how that might be related to your own career.

Unbeknownst to you, you may already have valuable social capital at your fingertips, in so-called “multiplex” ties—ones that can serve multiple ends. Do you know what your neighbors do for work? What about your children’s friends’ parents? Or your spouse’s co-workers’ spouses (or children)? But, again, the more of a decent human being you are in these relationships, the more likely they might be willing to provide professional value as well.

So the networking gap boils down to women being “too nice,” not aggressive enough to put themselves out there?

No! Scholars have written extensively on the so-called “double-bind” for women, especially those in leadership positions. Research shows that—regardless of what they do—they will be judged negatively based on warmth versus competence. Too nice? Not smart, and disrespected. Too strategic? Cold and conniving, and disliked. This goes for networking, too. Women who “reach for the top” in their networking are not seen as team players (violating feminine norms of communalism) and may suffer a status penalty versus women who have less instrumental networks. But women who don’t have those instrumental ties aren’t able to advance.

“Fixing women” is not the answer. In the C-suite, empowering words for women must be matched by action. Senior leaders must be ready to appoint capable and deserving women to positions of organizational relevance.

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