working women

Networking is More (and Much Harder) than Who You Know

A recent study by INSEAD business school professors studied the rolodex of various Wall Street research analysts early in their career, and concluded that having the same rolodex did not benefit men and women equally.  As one blogger tries to sum up the research, in her article titled “Networking Doesn’t Help Women” (paywall): “Men seem to get a lot more help from their contacts….[whereas what works for women] is good old fashioned competence and hard work.”

As tantalizing as it may be to conclude that gender bias is to blame, we have to take a deep breath and evaluate the study and findings for what they are.

  1. This study focused on both male and female sell-side research analysts (read: people whose jobs it is to be experts and to make buy/sell/hold recommendations for a small list of companies for their buy-side clients, i.e. fund managers who may make investments in those companies).
  2. The “rolodex” studied = the alumni connections between the analyst and a manager or director at a company he/she covered.
  3. The “benefit” in this study was measured by both the accuracy of the analysts company earnings’ forecasts, and also the winning of an award based on an opinion poll of clients (i.e. the Institutional Investor Magazine “All America Research Team” designation).

We realize its very difficult to set up social experiments for lack of being able to set scientific controls in real life.  But alumni connections seem to be a pretty weak measure of “connections” given how large certain schools can be and how variable people’s emotional connections to their alma maters are.  And saying that “alumni connections” helped an analyst more accurately forecast earnings for a company almost implies some sort of inside information, which in itself is troubling, regardless of the analyst’s gender.

But put all of this aside.  Since when is “networking” the same as one’s rolodex?  Many of the women in the Fairygodboss community have given fascinating advice about how to succeed at their companies.  They say things like

“Network!”

“Find a mentor”

“You have to penetrate an all-male inner circle”.

In other words, these women obviously do have access to their colleagues.  They can call them, email them, walk by them in the hallway.

What these comments imply is that you have to actively build positive relationships with people (in positions of influence/power).  Its simply not enough for people to ‘know’ who you are.  It may sound obvious, but its the quality of the relationship that matters and relationship strength can’t simply be captured by the word “networking”.  It can take a significant amount of investment and energy to build these relationships if there aren’t natural common interests (e.g. the stereotypical “golf game” or after-work drinks) or personalities.  Does that make things harder for women?  We’ll probably never know for sure (even if there’s an academic study that tries to answer the question).  But odds are, you are probably nodding your head even without the aid of a research study.

It would be fascinating to see whether women working in female-dominated environments find it easier to network and build strong relationships that advance their careers because the people they are trying to network with share their gender (and therefore potentially some of their same interests).  We’ll be analyzing member comments that suggest this in certain female-dominated companies and industries and report back soon!

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