New Cutting Edge Study Sheds Light on the Glass Ceiling Problem

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Networking is an essential component of building a successful career, particularly for entrepreneurs, but it can also be an area of persistent gender inequality. For years, researchers presumed that providing women access to the same networks as their male counterparts could overcome an informal system that continues to benefit men. But new research by Columbia Business School Assistant Professor Mabel Abraham, demonstrates that even when women have access to the same professional networks as men, they’re still falling behind in attaining equal opportunities to advance their business prospects and careers.

This study demonstrates the ways that biases persist in networking when third parties are involved, putting female professionals in male-dominated roles at a disadvantage in referrals for new business. The findings suggest that women’s inability to get referrals, or connections to the people their network contacts know, may contribute to gender differences in earnings among entrepreneurs.

“Solely being in the same networks as men is not enough for women to have equal access to the same opportunities,” said Professor Abraham. “In industries historically dominated by men like financial services, tech, and IT that rely on referrals for business growth or career advancement, the tendency for people to favor men when making these connections or referrals leads to men reaping more benefits.”

Abraham’s study includes 2,310 members of “RefClubs” (a pseudonym), a networking organization for entrepreneurs. It examines the extent to which networking – specifically in cases where an entrepreneur needs a colleague to make an introduction to a third party in order to build business – can be a source of gender inequality in resources and connections to clients.

Among small business entrepreneurs, female business owners in male-dominated occupations receive fewer connections to potential new clients than men. The study found that women in occupations that are male-dominated received 27 percent fewer referrals, or connections to potential new clients from their network contacts, which similarly translates to 27 percent less in revenues. The findings highlight that the presence of audience-based bias – or the expectation that a client, friend, or family member has a preference for men over women – leads people to favor men when making these connections. This study also debunks prior research that commonly attributed gender differences in network benefits to the tendency for women to be embedded in worse networks by comparing men and women in the same networks.

Women are not always disadvantaged in accessing resources through their network ties. The study found that women receive the same resources when they are directly connected with an individual. It is only when they are being connected to that individual’s broader network (third parties) that a disadvantage is present.

“Access can be enough if women need resources that their direct network connections can provide,” Abraham said. “But the old saying ‘you need to network more’ is not always sufficient for women as networking doesn’t operate the same way for everyone. Women in male-dominated roles ranging from banking to tech to trade professions suffer from a disadvantage because their network contacts assume that others hold preconceived notions that men ‘should’ hold those jobs and as a result their network contacts favor men in these cases.”

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