Research Findings

Women’s leadership labyrinth: Why do women build less effective networks than men?

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February 13, 2019

Women on executive boards and in other top level leadership positions are still uncommon throughout the world. Germany is no exception: by the end of June 2017, only 47 out of 677 executive board members in the German stock-listed DAX, MDAX, SDAX, and TecDAX companies were female. There is a strong rationale for changing this status quo. In addition to moral motives to include women, we have compelling evidence of the  bottom line benefits that result from having more women in leadership positions. However, in top management teams across companies and in boards of companies where no quota applies, the progress is slow. We argue that women’s underrepresentation indicates the persistent existence of the leadership labyrinth – a metaphor for the numerous challenges faced by women in their careers. Being continually confronted with challenging twists and turns requires women to work extra hard and persist in the face of difficulties on their route to success.

Studies have shown that engagement in networking is crucial for career success as it facilitates access to critical career-building resources such as advice, technical knowledge, strategic insight or emotional support. However, research has also revealed that women’s professional networks are often less powerful and effective than men’s in terms of exchanged benefits. Also the presumably distinct motivations that underlie the networking behaviors of men and women remain less well understood. With our research, we provide new insights into the discussion on women, leadership and career development, with a specific focus on networking. With such insights we contribute to greater transparency in the leadership labyrinth with ineffective networks being one detrimental hurdle for women.

Prior research has identified gender differences in the size and quality of professional networking. As networking provides many benefits in career matters of all kinds, it is important for finding one’s way through the leadership labyrinth. If we approach networking from such a structural perspective, we can conclude that networking offers less utility for women (i.e. being less beneficial for the career progress) than for men. Previous research has argued that women build less effective networks than men with less influential and powerful contacts and suggest that such ineffectiveness is primarily attributable to women being at a structural disadvantage.

Starting with these notions of gender specific differences in networking structures, we were specifically interested in understanding the motivations and reasons that underlie women’s networking behaviors in our study. We specifically sought for answers for the following research question: Why do women build less effective networks than men? We interviewed 37 high-profile female leaders who were either on executive boards or occupied top leadership positions with large corporations in Germany or were successful entrepreneurs whose backgrounds involved noteworthy positions in management. The interviewees’ age ranged from 31 to 63 with an average of 46.5 years. About 2/3 of the women had at least one child, the overall average was 1.3 children per interviewee.

Barriers: Relational morality and gendered modesty

We found that not only the extrinsic barrier of structural exclusion from powerful networks, but also the intrinsic barrier of women’s hesitations to ‘instrumentalize’ social ties are key to answering our research question. Namely, supporting previous research, our analysis points to the existence of structural exclusion resulting from work–family conflict and homophily. In other words, women continue to take care of the major share of house work at home and it remains challenging for them to break into the old boys’ networks. 

With regard to personal hesitation, we identified two elements that were associated with under-benefiting from networking: relational morality, denoting women’s tendencies to avoid over-benefitting through networking, and gendered modesty, referring to how women underestimate their own value in professional contexts. More specifically, our results suggest women are very conscious about not getting more out of their networks than they feel they can contribute in return. Our research confirms that men approach their networks in more utilitarian way compared to women, whose approach tends to more social. This specifically suggests the presence of gender-specific approaches to networking. The literature on leadership training also acknowledges that women are likely to feel inauthentic when engaging in activities that serve their personal interests of leadership advancement. Further, women as donors contributing to networks tend to underestimate the value of their own contributions and hence hesitate to engage in networking. The literature on negotiation reveals a similar tendency among women to underestimate their worth. For example, males exhibit more certainty regarding their self-worth than females in negotiation situations and are more eager to prove their worth to their negotiation partners. In her practitioners’ book, Sheryl Sandberg devotes an entire chapter (‘Sit at the table’) to the issue of women’s lack of self-confidence and underestimations of their own abilities.

In sum, our study confirms the existence of structural barriers in the form of homophily and work-family conflict that hinder women’s networking efforts. Furthermore, women’s tendencies to harbor moral concerns about ‘exploiting’ social ties cause them to under-benefit from their networking activities. This adverse effect of relational morality on networking effectivity is enforced by women’s tendencies to underestimate and undersell their professional self-worth (i.e. gendered modesty). These considerations provide a holistic explanation for women’s hesitations to ‘instrumentalize’ social ties and for the consequent ineffectiveness of their professional networking efforts compared to those of their male counterparts.

Strategically ‘instrumentalize’ social ties now! 

We hope to encourage women to scrutinize and enhance their positioning in networks by being proactive and interacting with a higher level of self-confidence. Organizations can support women in building their social capital by establishing mentoring programs as well as networking training and platforms. We also encourage them to interact more proactively and less reservedly with powerful social contacts, especially with other women. Women’s tendencies to underestimate their value on their leadership paths, professional networks and on the job market are at odds with the present demand for qualified women. Instead women can be convinced of their qualities and of their resulting objective ‘professional value’ and engage proactively in seeking leadership careers and joining in powerful networks that they are likely to benefit from and valuably contribute to.

Overall, our study makes two important contributions. First, by highlighting personal hesitation as an intrinsic barrier, it extends the understanding of women’s motivations for networking based on social exchange theory. Second, based on structural barriers and personal hesitation, it develops a grounded theory model of networking that offers a holistic understanding of reasons that, from the perspective of the focal women, contribute to gender inequality in the workplace.

Read more:

Elena Greguletz, Marjo-Riitta Diehl, and Karin Kreutzer, “Why women build less effective networks than men: The role of structural exclusion and personal hesitation,” Human Relations 2018.


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