Efforts to improve women’s representation in leadership are decades old, yet the numbers remain stubbornly low:
- For every 100 men promoted, only 79 women are promoted1.
- Approximately 40% of women in senior roles/technical positions report being one of the only women in the room2.
- The World Economic Forum3 estimates it will take 168 years for North America to close the global gender gap.
So, why don’t we see more women in leadership?
There are many potential answers to the question of why women do not rise at equal rates as men. However, of all the potential solutions, our research identified one we think deserves more attention than it has received to date: women are not gaining access to the information and opportunities they need from their professional networks in order to advance.
Our network connects us to the right groups, people, and information and inclusion at work – through our networks – can be a critical factor that influences promotion and advancement opportunities. Unfortunately, research indicates 81% of women report some form of exclusion at work, yet 92% of men don’t believe that they are excluding women at all4. This difference highlights the critical, yet less obvious influence of our professional networks.
Based on our interviews, women tend to advance when three conditions are present:
- People work with them and experience them as equally competent professionals.
- They are given access to opportunities and experience.
- They are included in conversations and have access to information at the right level.
Focusing on networks can help with all these things. More specifically, networks – and the information they carry – are one of the primary ways people learn about career advancement and development opportunities. By being in the right networks, women have an opportunity to work alongside and for others who would support them in their advancement. They also have access to high-quality opportunities and can have the conversations that help them advance.
However, research suggests that women and men's networks – and the information within them – are different. Understanding these connections between people – who knows whom and why – could help organizations understand why some employees rise and why others do not.
How are men and women’s networks different and why does it matter?
Traditional social dynamics – along with promotion rates, power, and rank – influence the creation and composition of professional networks.5,6 In general, as men move up the ranks in organizations, they join higher-status networks with more information and power. They also are more likely to be surrounded by men, because men, statistically speaking, are more likely to be promoted. Women – who tend to be promoted at lower rates – more often find themselves in lower-status networks (which can be women-dominated).
Network status influences the extent to which someone has access to key conversations, information, and projects that would help them advance in an organization.7 Since men tend to be in those high-status networks, they tend to have access to higher-quality information and gain access to opportunities that support advancement. Women in lower-status networks do not receive the same benefits.
While this is an incredibly simplified version of a very nuanced and complex problem, the key message is that the mechanisms that have created traditional organizational hierarchy, policy, and practice have also created echo chambers that disproportionately benefit men and hamper the advancement of women.8
What should women consider when building their network?
The research is great, but what does it mean, practically speaking, for women and how they build their network? For starters, it means understanding that networks – left to haphazardly build by chance – are likely to disproportionately negatively impact women. The good news is that women who use this information to intentionally build their network can increase their likelihood of advancement.
Research reveals there are four foundational principles (see Figure 1) women should keep in mind when building a professional network that can help them advance.9 These four foundational principles are critical for organizations to consider when designing initiatives to help women advance; we will discuss them in that context at further length later in the report. For more information on these four foundational principles, see the Appendix.
Are organizations considering networks today when trying to advance women?
Given the huge preponderance of research10 we’ve seen that points to the importance of networks in enabling women to rise, we began this research with high hopes of finding examples of organizations using network theory in their approach to advancing women. After all, there are decades of academic research11 on the topic of how networks differ among genders and how network status and power influence professional advancement. Further, most professionals are on various social networks that are technologically enabled, so our awareness of networks – and how they can be accelerated or changed by technology – is higher than ever. Therefore, it seemed logical that a number of organizations would be thinking about gender, networks, and how to use technology to help women rise.
We were wrong. After our 50 interviews with organizations of very different sizes, industries, and geographies, we found that relatively few organizations are thinking about how to help women design and build their networks intentionally. And even fewer are thinking about how to use technology to help. This was deflating.
However, all was not lost. Through our interviews, we gained significant insight into what organizations are doing today to advance women and found some examples of organizations tweaking common practices to account for network dynamics. We also uncovered a lot of existing technology that could help organizations evolve their existing practices to help with network dynamics. Further, we identified some novel practices that are showing early promise in advancing women.
In the pages that follow, we describe the common and novel practices for advancing women that we identified through our interviews. For all of these practices, we explain how network dynamics – in particular, the four foundational principles for women building their networks – play out. We further highlight the technology we think could help and give ideas for how new, yet-to-be-invented technology could assist in the future. We provide case examples wherever possible to bring the research to life.
Our hope is that this paper serves as a call to action for all leaders to re-think the practices and technology they use to advance women, and to much more substantially integrate an awareness of networks and how they play out differently for women into their efforts.
We know our connections matter. Both who we know and what those connections provide (information, resources, access, visibility) matters to career progression – so let’s make sure that women have the right connections that can help them advance. Our organizations’ future successes – and many women’s livelihood – depend on it.12
- “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co., 2018. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2018
- “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co., 2017. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2017
- “Work with Me: 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business,” Annis, B., & Gray, J., 2013.
- “Poverty and inequality report,” Sterling, A. / Stanford University, 2018.
- “Personal networks of women and minorities in management: A conceptual framework,” Ibarra, H., 1993.
- “Mentorship, Sponsorship and Networks: The Power and Value of Professional Connections,” Bentley University, 2017. https://www.bentley.edu/centers/center-for-women-and-business/mentorship-sponsorship-research-report-
- “Do women suffer from network closure? The moderating effect of social capital on gender inequality in a project-based labor market, 1929 to 2010,” Lutter, M., 2015.
- For more details on these four foundational principles, see Appendix 2: Explanation of the Four Foundational Principles.
- See our literature review on this topic, here: https://redthreadresearch.com/wnt-lit-review/.
- “Research: When Gender Diversity Makes Firms More Productive,” Turban, S., Wu, D., and Zhang, L., Harvard Business Review, February 11, 2019. https://hbr.org/2019/02/research-when-gender-diversity-makes-firms-more-productive.