PSU study highlights need for employers to support career success for women

Meredith Woehler

Accomplished researcher and professor of medicine Dr. Heather Christensen is struggling to adapt to her new work environment caused by COVID-19. She teaches full-time and works remotely while homeschooling her three young children. She has little time for anything else.

“I’ve been incredibly frustrated, Christensen said. “And my sentiments are repeated by almost every woman I speak to, from front-line COVID-19 workers to basic scientists to faculty members.”

Christensen is among millions of other women whose careers are being negatively impacted due to the pandemic. They are often left with the brunt of both childcare and household responsibilities.

A new article from The School of Business at Portland State University explores professional networks, including the types and value of networks women have compared to men.

Assistant Professor of Management Meredith Woehler and colleagues published the article, “Whether, How, and Why Networks Influence Men’s and Women’s Career Success: Review and Research Agenda,” in the Journal of Management.

The study offers guidance for organizations aiming to address inequality resulting from gender differences in professional networks, especially with the impact of the pandemic and added responsibilities at home for women.

An uneven playing field

Even before the pandemic, women’s workplace obstacles included sexual harassment, unequal salaries and firms scheduling networking events after work when many women have childcare duties.

“Women may struggle to develop relationships relative to men, but women certainly benefit from networking opportunities,” said Woehler. “In fact, scholars have suggested women simply need to engage in more networking to achieve the same level of network benefits as men achieve with less effort.”

Woehler states that the body of research on professional networks has often claimed that women have less valuable networks than men, women have smaller networks than men, or that men and women have different networks (with women's being worse). Her new research shows that, in many ways, this is inaccurate.

The research finds that men’s and women’s networks are similar in structure (i.e., size, openness, closeness, contacts’ average and structural status) but differ in composition (i.e., proportion of men, same-gender, and kin contacts). “In other words, the number of contacts and pattern of men and women's relationships are quite similar, yet the types of people men and women are connected to often differ,” said Woehler.

According to the researchers, requests for resources from women may be honored less frequently than men’s because contacts often react negatively to women who push against gender norms. For example, a woman’s request for a raise is more likely to be denied, compared to a man who statistically tends to ask for raises more often (and receives them).

“Network contacts may view women less positively and be less willing to provide them with (un)solicited resources,” the study says.

As many conferences are moving online, women are losing out on vital networking opportunities.

“Women really need those sidebar conversations they get at in-person meetings,” said Eve Higginbotham, MD, vice dean for inclusion and diversity at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers theorize that in networking situations, men may be perceived as “more legitimate” and “more willing to provide a person with more and better resources” compared to women, making others more willing to connect with men. They assert that future research is needed to explore how women can be equally effective in their networking as men.

In addition to the gender norms, the unequal distribution of men in higher-power positions and organizational levels gives women “different opportunities to connect with network contacts at upper hierarchical levels,” the study says.

Now that the playing field has been shifted even more dramatically due to the pandemic, there is a golden opportunity for business owners and leaders to think critically about the women in their workforce, and how to shift this startling trend.

Woehler contemplates the implications of this research on the pandemic-environment.

“People have called the ongoing recession the ‘she-session’ due to its disproportionate impact on women in the workforce,” she said. “We don't yet know how women's networks have affected their ability to deal with this crisis and the changes in their work and home life.  Women's and men's networks may help them cope with the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or may suffer because women — and to a lesser extent, men— no longer have the time to invest in their networks.”

Woehler states that the pandemic has reduced the amount of time and energy employees — particularly women who bear the brunt of responsibilities for household upkeep and caring for children and elderly relatives — have to invest in their networks of professional relationships.

“I am currently conducting research to identify how men and women can leverage their networks to lead in this crisis,” Woehler said about her continued research on this topic.

Co-authors of this study include Kristin L. Cullen-Lester of University of Mississippi, Caitlin M. Porter of University of Memphis and Katherine A. Frear of Southern Methodist University.

Six steps to improving workplace gender equality

  1. Be mindful of the opportunities employees have in network creation and utilization, as well as the cultures that emerge from gender (im)balanced professional contexts in occupations, organizations, departments and hierarchies. Talent acquisition and management practices can be used to achieve gender-balance, especially during organizational growth.

  2. Develop networking opportunities that give equal opportunity to all employees. For example, offer networking events during normal work hours to facilitate connections among all employees, including those who might be excluded if events took place after hours.

  3. Offer benefits such as on-site childcare, eldercare and paid vacation that support employees’ personal responsibilities. This will enable them to commit more effort to professional activities, which might influence others’ opinions about their attractiveness as a network contact.

  4. Incorporate workshops that facilitate employee network creation to promote leadership development. For example: training that helps employees learn what constitutes an effective network, identify effective strategies to change their networks, and build comfort with professional networking and asking for resources.

  5. Train your leaders to accurately assess and rely upon employees’ merit — and not gender role expectations — when allocating resources.

  6. Encourage your leaders to be proactive to ensure women have equal access to work- and career-benefiting resources, including challenging, mission-critical and visible roles and developmental opportunities, even if they are less likely to ask for them.