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  • Writer's pictureRaina Brands

Making Social Networks Work For You

A senior leader recently came to us with an urgent question. A woman in his organization was being evaluated for a big promotion. In this particular organization, promotion decisions are made by a small committee of individuals whose deliberations are kept strictly confidential. Within hours of their meeting, the woman had learned that one of the committee members had introduced false data about her performance, which influenced their decision to deny her promotion. She immediately took action and approached the leader to have the false data about her performance corrected and her case for promotion reconsidered. The leader who related the story to us was shocked – both by the committee member’s misconduct and by the breach. If the committee’s deliberations are confidential, how was she able to learn of what happened so quickly? To us, the answer is obvious – the informal organization. In this case, the woman had a friend on the committee, who asked her about the new (false) information and, when she identified it as incorrect, told her what had happened.

This illustrates the power – and importance – of informal social networks for individuals’ careers. While this story has a happy ending for this woman, too often women are locked out of the informal networks that can protect, and advance, their careers. In this newsletter, we want to unpack the informal organization and two barriers in it that too often hold women back.

The Informal Organization

The informal organization refers to all of the interactions that take place in an organization beyond those prescribed by the formal organizational chart. The organizational chart describes how work gets done in an organization by detailing all the jobs that exist and how those jobs relate to one another – this is the formal organization. However much of the real work of organizations takes place outside of those formally prescribed reporting lines, in networks of relationships that form naturally as individuals interact with each other in the course of fulfilling their work duties. These relationships include friendships, informal exchanges of advice, mentorship, sponsorship, and indeed any type of relationship you can think of.

A great deal of research shows that these networks of informal relationships drive the productivity and performance of organizations. It is no surprise that these networks are so powerful – we discover the people we enjoy working with, those who bring out the best in us (and vice versa), and channel our work efforts through and around them.

This informal organization is also why networking is so important for people’s careers. There are countless books, webinars, and articles about how to network. However, a lot of these overlook the ways in which the informal organization poses barriers to equality for women at work.


Barrier 1: The “Old Boys” Network

Most of us have worked in an office that has a group of insiders. Being an insider comes with many advantages – insiders typically have access to important information before everyone else, they have access to privileged information, and they also tend to experience career benefits, being buffered from career setbacks and instead guided onto glass escalators. Unfortunately, more often than not, the insiders in organizations are men. In one consulting firm we worked with, not only were the insiders all men, but they had all been educated at the same private school – literally the Old Boys Network!

Why is it that men and not women are usually insiders? The answer is homophily. You may have heard the expression, “birds of a feather flock together.” This describes homophily, which is our tendency to prefer relationships with people who are similar to us. We like people who are similar to us, and liking is the basis of friendships and advice relationships at work. Homophily doesn’t just shape our social networks in terms of gender – it makes us more likely to have people of our own race, class, nationality, disability status, and other characteristics in our networks. It can also arise on deeper dimensions, such as values and interests.

Research suggests that although both women and men prefer same gender friendships at work, men have a stronger preference for gender homophily than women. In other words, homophily in men’s networks arises relatively more from preference, women’s more from exclusion. This exclusion of women by men in the informal organization has dramatic consequences. The typical workplace has lots of men at the top of the organization in positions of power, but women are concentrated lower in the organization. The dynamic of homophily means that women’s friendship networks tend to pool lower down the organization to people in positions of lower power and influence, while men’s networks extend to individuals higher up who have a great deal of power and influence. Put another way, women’s and men’s friends may be equally motivated to help them, but men are more likely to have friends at the top who can help in a way that will make a real difference.

As with all gendered dynamics, everyone is affected. While women are excluded from relationships with senior men who could advance their careers, men who lack social network connections to the women in their organizations prevent themselves from having a true understanding of the company and miss out on opportunities to get to know high-potential colleagues. While lacking these network connections may not obviously harm senior men as much as it obviously harms junior women, it does harm the organization as a whole.

We’ve used the simple example of the gender binary to illustrate how homophily creates network exclusion. However, the issues that arise out of homophily are often even more dramatic for individuals who have multiple underrepresented identities, like Black women. That is, while White women might be excluded from the old boy’s network, they can connect with men on race – something that Black women are obviously excluded from. So when we think about the old boy’s network, we are also acknowledging racialized, classed, and abled networks as well.


Barrier 2: Lack of Sponsorship

Many organizations have formal mentoring programs designed to help members of underrepresented groups move up the organizational ladder. These initiatives typically pair women or racial minorities with a leader in the organization who can give them advice on how to progress into leadership roles. Unfortunately, mentorship in this narrow sense is unlikely to drive careers forward. What really helps individuals succeed in organizations are career sponsors. Sponsorship can take the form of making introductions, putting individuals forward for career opportunities (e.g., nominating them for leadership development programs), speaking up for them in promotions committees, etc. Sponsorship is different from mentorship because it requires individuals to use their capital – be it financial, reputational or social – on their protegee.

The ideal career sponsor is someone who not only has the motivation to sponsor a woman’s career, but also the organizational clout to do so. Getting top leaders to have that motivation for women is therefore key. Organisations can’t mandate that powerful individuals sponsor certain women – these relationships need to form naturally to be effective. You have to truly believe in someone’s potential in order to risk your reputation to sponsor them. Unfortunately, in most organizations, women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. There are two key reasons for this.

First, homophily is at play again. Senior men are more likely to believe in the potential of junior men and sponsor them – traditionally, male-male sponsorship relationships feel more natural, easier, and more genuine than male-female sponsorships relationships. Homophily means that senior men find it easier to “see themselves” in junior men – it’s rare for a senior male leader to use the same type of phrasing about a more junior woman, which then becomes a barrier to the senior leader casting themselves in a sponsorship role for her.

Secondly, stereotypes play a role in reducing women’s access to sponsors. Stereotypes not only portray men as more competent than women, they also cast men as more suitable for leadership roles. The decision to sponsor someone is often taken on gut feel rather than a deliberative analysis of someone’s performance and potential – and gut feelings are often influenced by stereotypes. For example, people tend to see potential in high-achieving men, whereas women of equal achievement aren’t afforded the same perception of potential – they have to prove and reprove their abilities. This means that junior men will attract more sponsors – women and men from top leadership – than junior women, as senior individuals use stereotyped assessments of other’s potential.


Take Action

Homophily is ubiquitous in organizations. However, it can also offer a path to better networks. While initial attraction is driven by superficial similarity, deeper similarity on dimensions like values and interests can also create lasting bonds. Our advice is that you seek out and create situations so you can form bonds along these deeper dimensions with senior leaders in your organization.

1. Understand your network. Think through who you go to for advice at work, and who you are friends with. Then ask yourself who do they go to for advice at work and who are they friends with? This simple exercise will reveal how diverse your network is and whether you have career sponsors with sufficient clout to help you.

2. Tap into reciprocity. Assuming you want to make more connections with the majority group in your workplace, you can take action to overcome homophily by tapping into a social force as strong as homophily – reciprocity. Start reaching out to invite people who you aren’t as well-connected with to get a coffee, have lunch, or do a no-video 15-minute virtual walk. As you get started, focus on those who you had a basic level of positivity with when you first met, and have a clear work-related topic of conversation in mind so that there’s no awkwardness or misinterpretation to the invitation. The dynamic of reciprocity means you should soon be getting invitations in return.

3. Seek situations that allow you to discover deep homophily with others, particularly career sponsors. Gender homophily is so powerful because most people are lazy networkers – we allow proximity and similarity to build our networks. But gender is a superficial characteristic – we likely share similar values and interests to the men we work with, we just never get the chance to discover it. Put yourself in situations where you have the chance to discover deeper similarities with powerful men in a natural setting by asking for special assignments, joining special working groups, volunteering for cross team/divisions committees etc.

4. Don’t just focus on women sponsors. Women are under-represented in leadership in organizations. One consequence of this is that there are many women below them who may seek them out as mentors and sponsors, driven by the dynamic of homophily. This means that senior women are often spread too thin as sponsors. If a senior woman wants to help your career, by all means take her assistance. But in trying to build connections with sponsors, don’t focus your attentions only on other women.

5. Ask for sponsorship. We have said that the best career sponsors are those with the motivation and ability to help you. But there is no need to wait for them to offer help – ask! Have frank conversations with potential sponsors about your ambitions and ask them for their advice and assistance. Related to the point above, if a senior woman doesn’t seem to have the bandwidth to be your sponsor, ask her who among the men at her level she would recommend.


Get in Touch

Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming podcasts and newsletters.

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