Networks, homophily, social capital: it’s not even who you know…

PP factor 4:  women don’t have access to the same networks as men do, especially networks that include people working at higher occupational or organisational levels.  It’s what social capitalists call ‘linking social capital’ – the kind that links you in to people higher up the power hierarchy, in contrast to bonding SC (hooking up with people like you) or bridging SC  (connecting to people outside your own type, but not necessarily any higher up than you are).

Demonstrating this is something other people have done in far greater detail than I have been able to do.  Herminia Ibarra did this over 20 years ago in an interesting paper on ‘homophily’, based on research in the advertising industry .  Homophily is relates closely to bonding SC: we all tend to associate with people like ourselves, and this applies to gender as well.

Paul Seabright made the same point more generally in The War of the Sexes (Princeton UP, 2012):

“Both men and women display a preference for networking with member of their own sex….networking primarily with their own sex tends to shut women out of networks of power and influence.”

Common sense, maybe, but the myriad ways in which this works need exploring.  I recently came across an interesting addition to the literature, from Sterling Huang and Lily Fang of Insead, with the nifty link title of  Your Rolodex matters but by how much depends on your gender. They looked at the world of Wall St analysts, and in particular at how far network connections helped women and men achieve the prized AA status, signalling that their colleagues estimate them to be a star analyst.

Huang and Fang find, to their surprise, that men and women seem equally well connected.  But the connections seem to pay off less well for women in enabling them to achieve AA status.   There are fewer women at senior levels, so less opportunity for upwards homophily (you can get into some dizzy vocabulary doing this kind of work….).  But their conclusion is:

“On the one hand, we should celebrate the fact that outright gender discrimination in education, hiring and promotions are on the decline. In our data, female analysts are not under-represented in the AA analyst pool. On the other hand, the evidence clearly points to a more subtle—yet perhaps more insidious—form of gender bias: men and women may be evaluated using different criteria in our subjective mind.”

So traditional networking may not work as well for women – though it’s still an important route, and organisations such as Women Like Us do a great job in bringing people together.  A recent Guardian post, from the useful Women in Leadership page, explores this further.  Once again, how meritocracy works depends on who decides on what counts as merit.  (It’s worth making this point on the hundredth anniversary of Michael Young’s birth.)

I think it’s probably true that networks are equally important in other less rarified occupations, and at many other organisational levels – too often neglected.  How much does knowing others matter when it comes to getting a promotion at mid-level or below?


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