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Who’s Better At Networking – Harry Or Meghan?

Do men and women face different barriers when it comes to getting the nod of approval from those higher up?
Do men and women face different barriers when it comes to getting the nod of approval from those higher up?

  • New research from ESMT Berlin shows the differences in the ways that men and women network
  • Women tend to build better networks through their third-party connections
  • Men tend to build better networks with those who are located near them

Building connections is vital in business if you want to thrive. It’s no secret that making it to the top can be just as much about who you know, as well as what you know, so building the right connections can be just as important as building your knowledge in a specific field. So much so that there’s a whole field dedicated to the art of getting it right – networking.

But networking can be hard. Like building any relationship, it takes time, effort and plenty of proving your worth to the person you’re trying to make a connection with – and sometimes being overly keen can have an adverse effect. And also like any relationship, often men and women view the process of building these connections in different ways, with some aspects proving to be more difficult than others for different people.

So, is it more difficult for Meghan Markle to network than it is for Prince Harry? Is Hillary Clinton much more likely to find a support in a senior colleague than her husband Bill? Or, is Beyonce much more like to land a new role through a close colleague than Jay-Z?

The question we are asking is, is it more difficult for women to make these high-status connections than it is for men?

Well, new research from ESMT Berlin suggests that men and women experience networking in very different ways, and that both genders face specific, different challenges to each other in the process.

Gianluca Carnabuci, professor of organizational behavior at ESMT Berlin, alongside his colleagues Carla Rua-Gomez from Skema Business School and Martin C. Goossen from Old Dominion University collected data on how people formed collaboration ties within the R&D laboratories of the 42 largest pharmaceutical companies, over a 25-year period (1985-2010).

Through this large-scale data set, they were able to study who succeeded at entering the collaboration network of the highest-status colleagues in their lab (the “star” scientists), and how they did so. The researchers identified two key pathways – geographic and network proximity – through which R&D scientists built ties with star colleagues. Geographic proximity allowed someone working within the same geographic location as the star scientist to interact face-to-face, whereas network proximity referred to those who were successfully connected to the star scientist via a third party who could vouch for them.

Interestingly, whilst geographic and network proximity were found to be useful for both men and women, the study revealed that gender influenced which of the two methods worked best. Women were found to be particularly effective at building high-status connections through the support of third-party ties. This, according to the researchers, is because such indirect connections are a powerful means to counteract generalised gender stereotypes and highlight womens’ distinctive strengths.

For the men, simply being in the same geographical location as the star colleague was found to be the most beneficial. The research suggests the reason for this being high-status actors inferring a colleague’s competence from stereotypically masculine signals, such as assertiveness and self-confidence, which are particularly salient in face-to-face interactions.

“There has long been the notion of the ‘old boys’ club’ in many organisations and contexts. It is a fact that networks at the highest level are predominantly male, and for women it is very difficult to break into these networks. Yet building networks is a more nuanced process than most people think, and our research shows that women and men are most successful when using different approaches,” says Professor Carnabuci.

So, how can we ensure that there is a level playing field for all? How can organisations protect against women needing an authoritative third party to help them get their foot in the door, or men being given the nod of approval simply down to body language and stereotype? The researchers say that it is important to create a more inclusive environment where all employees have equal opportunities to access high-status networks. To do this, organisations should engage in designing different support approaches for women and men.

One example could be mentorship programs specifically aimed at building third-party ties between low-status women and high-status colleagues, this way women can prove their worth in person and not have to rely on a recommendation. Whilst for men, it is important to cultivate greater opportunities to connect them with third-party connections, whether it is smaller networking session that acts as a recommending scheme, where a middle-person looks to connect two of their colleagues.

It’s also important to ensure these efforts are seen as vital for business progression, and are continued to be invested in. After all, if has been documented that, when firms begin to underperform, diversity is often sacrificed, contributing to the problem of unequal opportunity rather than helping to solve it. And, when company productivity is so clearly tied to employee engagement and satisfaction, it seems that choosing not to invest in giving all staff the chance for progression could be akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

The approach to facilitating successful networking is no doubt filled with challenges, but these should not be left to be solved by employees alone. Understanding where these challenges lie, and helping employees to overcome these can not only provide a boost to their careers, but to the wider organisation’s opportunities to collaborate with others too, say the researchers.

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