Who you know and the quality of the relationships in your network play a large role in finding and being selected for valuable opportunities. Being known helps with finding and getting hired for jobs, being given important "stretch assignments" that advance career, and finding "sponsors" who will advocate for advancement in essential ways.
An individual's personal and professional networks are mostly made up of people of similar backgrounds, interests, and cultures. While it's understandable that people make friends and networks of likeminded people, that also creates obstacles for the advancement of people who don't fall into the networks of powerful, senior leaders who are predominantly white, heterosexual men.
Facts and data
Networking with senior colleagues leads to advancement and women get less face time. High potential employees described forming critical relationships with influential others as most impactful to their advancement (44% of those surveyed), particularly when it came to gaining access to key roles. Additionally, significantly more men than women reported getting C-Suite visibility to a great extent while working on projects (35% for men, 26% for women) [Catalyst]
People do benefit from networking. Organizers of a women's networking conference surveyed 2,600 working women across functions and industries. Their control group was made up of women who were signed up for a conference in the near future but had not yet attended. They found that 42% of the women who had already attended the conference had received a promotion whereas only 18% of the control group did. Additionally, 15% of the women who had attended received a pay increase (of 10%+) vs only 5% of the women in the control group [HBR]
Emails from prospective students to professors across graduate programs were much less likely to be responded to if they came from women and people of color. Researchers from Wharton, Columbia, and NYU Stern sent 6,000 faculty members (spanning a range of disciplines) letters from "would-be grad students" expressing interest in talking about research opportunities in the program, becoming a graduate student and learning about the professor's work. The letters asked for a 10-minute discussion. The letters were identical in every way except for the names of the fictional people sending them (e.g. Brad Anderson for white men; Keisha Thomas for black women; Mei Chen for Chinese women; Juanita Martinez for Latina women). The response rates varied widely as you can see in the table below [Inside Higher Ed]
A survey of more than 6,000 faculty members, across a range of disciplines, has found that when prospective graduate students reach out for guidance, white males are the most likely to get attention. [Inside Higher Ed]
Hear it FirstHand
Just because it's not golf anymore doesn't mean that there's not a boys' club in tech, mostly made up of white and sometimes Asian men. It's a lot more well intentioned, but I have experienced informal networks that end up excluding a lot of people. There is a culture in which social and business are melding in Tech right now. You do your happy hour with coworkers and get drunk together... I was actually delighted by this at first when I started some years back, but now I've realized how problematic that can be. Again, it's not intentional, but your manager's surfing and burning man buddies absolutely have a leg up.
Hear it FirstHand
I was sitting in a boardroom with 4 male board members debating a strategic decision when we decided to take a short break and reconvene in 5 minutes. After the break, the other board members were talking among themselves and one of them said "Well I'm glad that's decided - Let's move on." It turned out that they had made the decision in the men's restroom without me.
At my consulting firm, on most projects for team building we would go to basketball games and drink. I had fun (even though I don't really know or care about basketball), but I also felt out of place and couldn't really connect with diehard basketball fans. But I had one great manager who would always make sure we did team building events that were more inclusive, stuff like morning spin classes, board games, escape rooms. We did one of those scavenger hunt games once, which while kinda corny actually was really fun. It helped me get to know everyone much better.
Women have less and less substantive interactions with senior leaders than men do as they progress [McKinsey]
Hold events that are inclusive of everyone. Historically, leadership of powerful institutions have been heterosexual, white men and have engaged in activities for this demographic. These "traditional" kinds of business events can end up being exclusive, even if unintentionally. There’s no one-size-fits-all type of event that will fit a company culture, but avoid events with heavy alcohol consumption and anything of a gendered or sexual nature. Common events like watching sports or playing on an office softball team can end up being either inclusive or exclusive depending on how they're done
Create a culture conducive to forming connections between everyone. Leaders can ask colleagues and supervisees about the occasions when they are the most connected to colleagues and most relaxed while at work. In the situations that white male leadership describe, are there women or people of color also present? If not, why not? If so, is everybody enjoying themselves? [BCG]
Support others' "Strategic Networking". Three different types of networks play a vital role in achieving goals: Operational, Personal, and Strategic. Operational Networks help you manage current internal responsibilities, Personal Networks boosts professional development, and Strategic Networks focus on advancement and and the stakeholders to help you get there. The suggestion here is to facilitate Strategic Networking since Operational and Personal don't have as much bang for their buck [World Economic Forum]
Create sponsorship programs. Sponsorship programs are those in which the company identifies promising up-and-comers and matches them with senior leaders who can advocate for their promotions, team assignments, and training and development. Lots of research shows these programs generate real results. [BCG] A different newsletter of ours covers "Sponsorship" in more depth