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Women can benefit from female-led networks

Support-based peer associations offer professional value.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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Family responsibilities and other societal barriers keep female leaders from joining male-dominated networks that offer professional benefits, according to a study, which also finds that some women are hesitant to join those networks.

The gap, authors say, could partly account for gender inequality in the workplace, because professional networks that are formed by and composed of men tend to offer important career advantages, such as information about professional opportunities, technical knowledge and strategic insight (E. Greguletz et al. Hum. Relations http://doi.org/cx3r; 2018).

But the authors and others say that female-run professional networks also provide significant, if different, benefits. Professional networks foster the exchange of advice and key information, all of which are crucial for career advancement. But earlier research had found that networking seems to have fewer direct benefits for women’s careers than for men’s, which could be partly because women and men network for different reasons.

The researchers aimed to highlight the barriers that hinder female leaders from leveraging professional male contacts for career gains. “If success is solely defined as furthering one’s career, men’s networks have been shown to be more successful,” says co-author Marjo-Riitta Diehl, who studies organizational behaviour at the EBS Business School in Oestrich-Winkel, Germany.

The authors interviewed 37 female business leaders at large corporations in Germany between 2015 and 2016. The team says that its results also apply to female academic researchers, because academia tends to be similarly male-dominated.

The researchers found that self-doubt, along with limited faith in one’s ability to make valuable contributions to male-based networks, can hold women back from seeking to join those circles. It is also difficult, the authors found, for female leaders to buck gendered societal expectations for their behaviour, which further limits their ability to join or derive professional advantages from any such informal group.

Female empowerment

But Diehl says that women’s networking activity might be undervalued. “The relationships that women form are equally important, but in a different manner,” she adds. The study notes that female-based networks offer social support and friendship, and provide a sense of reciprocity that can itself be empowering. Women tend to seek emotional and social support from their networks, whereas men tend to seek an exchange of direct benefits, such as promotion opportunities and job openings.

The study found that societally imposed carer responsibilities also tend to bar female leaders from engaging with men’s professional networks. Networking events that take place in the evening can conflict with those obligations, authors say.

One interviewee for the study said that she had seen female colleagues disadvantaged by societal assumptions about their roles as parents. She said that unless female leaders who have children communicate clearly that they want a more senior position, colleagues and superiors tend to conclude that those leaders don’t want to take on more responsibility. The study notes that family and caretaking roles are still largely assumed by women.

Lifting others

The authors also found that women tend to “network down”, or cultivate professional relationships with lower-level colleagues or subordinates, instead of seeking connections with more-powerful colleagues or superiors. Study interviewees indicated that they felt a moral obligation to support junior associates, says Diehl.

Terhi Nokkala, an education researcher at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, has found in her studies of academic women’s networks that women seek organic relationships stemming from a shared experience, be it gender or career stage. “We shouldn’t represent peer networks as a deficiency,” Nokkala says. “If women forge strong ties with peers at an early career stage, those people stay with them, not necessarily in the same institution, but within the discipline. Those ties offer strength over the long term.”

The bottom line, says Nokkala, is that there isn’t a single best way to network — particularly in academic fields, which each have their own customs and norms that might not be immediately clear to newcomers.

And, she adds, there are multiple layers to networks — some might exchange information about opportunities; others offer advice or emotional support — and each can contribute to career success. “What counts as career success, and what kinds of networks are beneficial, varies between countries,” she adds.

Diehl hopes that women will feel empowered, rather than hesitant, to engage with powerful professional and social contacts. “There’s nothing shameful in showing what you can do and what you have achieved,” says Diehl.

Nature 566, 145 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07878-w
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