Women in Business: the Network Paradox

We assume that, if it’s the male network that creates an advantage, we should include women in that network on an equal basis. Wrong answer.

Women know we thrive when we are together. All the way back to ancient times — in the red tent or carrying water from the river — women have relied on each other for support, encouragement and help with basic survival. Nonetheless, women today report feeling isolated at work and have trouble breaking into the professional networks and sponsors critical to their career advancement. Recent data collected in a comprehensive study tracking various trends related to women in global corporate leadership revealed women are three times more likely to rely on networks made up of mostly women. Because men hold more senior positions than women do, women only associating with women limit their access to leaders who can open doors to advancement in their careers. Paradoxically, women choose to rely on other women and thrive when they rely on other women, but the very reliance on other women limits their career opportunities. For ease of conversation, I’ll label this the “network paradox,” and I’ll describe it as a problem. See also: Value in Informal Employee Networks   The accepted solution to the network paradox is to integrate women into the well-established, centuries-old male network. Men have built a robust and extensive professional network, and most successful male executives have figured out how to tap into it. Research shows men have more interaction with senior managers, have more access to challenging and career-advancing assignments, are consulted more often for input on major decisions and receive informal feedback significantly more often than women. Understandably, people view this disparity as unfair, and, consequently, workplaces are devoted to creating a gender-neutral environment. In addition to training programs, HR departments manufacture mentoring relationships between men and women, create specific and detailed hiring and review processes that are viewed as gender-neutral and set goals for senior executives focused on accountability and results. The underlying assumption is that if it’s the male network that creates an advantage, we should include women in that network on an equal basis. At the risk of sounding too negative, that approach is never going to work. In response to the realization that because women thrive together and are significantly more likely to network with other women, we have decided the solution is to put women with men and hold people accountable for ignoring the fact that they are women. Put more positively, we want to create an integrated network that benefits men and women, and we have set about adding women to the existing framework. I propose that, instead, we should first build a network of women. The prevailing solution ignores the essence of the paradox: Women strongly prefer to network with other women. Despite overwhelming evidence that the male-dominated network is more effective at creating career paths to leadership, women are three times more likely to network with other women. Let’s respect that and put it to good use. Women in corporate leadership are isolated from each other. Companies have, at most, a few women in senior leadership. But across all companies, there are many women leaders who should be brought together. Circling back to my opening remark, women throughout history have thrived when they spend time together. A network of women will function in the same way the male network functions today. Women with deep and enduring relationships will support each other, make introductions for each other, mentor each other, provide informal feedback, steer career-making opportunities to each other and fundamentally generate power and influence for the group. As a first step, building this network does not require creating artificial relationships; data shows women naturally gravitate toward each other for this purpose. What is required is a commitment by senior executives to the goal — and a focus on accountability and results. See also: Why Women Are Smarter Than Men   The insurance and technology industries, both of which have a dearth of women in leadership, are the perfect industries to lead the world through this paradox to the future. In insurance and financial services, 57% of the entering workforce is female and only 21% of top executives are. In technology, the entering workforce is 36% female and only 19% of top executives are. More pressingly, as the demand for tech workers increases every year, the number of women entering the field decreases, creating a deficit of qualified workers to fill available jobs. Redirecting resources from the futile exercise of manufacturing and monitoring artificial gender-neutral access to the existing male-dominated network to the creation of a network of women will organically equalize what men and women are experiencing at work.

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