Social Networks And Gender Research Paper

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One of the most frequently cited causes for inequalities in the distribution of income, power, and status to men and women in the workplace is gender differences in social networks (Baron and Pfeffer 1994). The term network refers to the set of relationships defined by an individual and his or her direct contacts with others (see Ibarra 1993 for various definitions). Networks shape careers by awarding access to jobs, providing mentoring and sponsorship, channeling the flow of information and referrals, augmenting power and reputations, and increasing the likelihood and speed of promotion (e.g., Brass 1985, Burt 1992, Ibarra 1995, Kanter 1977). This research paper reviews the last two decades of research on men’s and women’s work networks and proposes a social structural perspective that can integrate findings about gender differences in network characteristics and their consequences. A social structural view underscores the embeddedness of social relationships within structural contexts that constrain the availability and ease of developing various kinds of social contacts. But such a perspective also gives prominence to the interaction patterns that intervene between causal processes at the macrostructural level of socioeconomic organizations and those operating at the individual level.

Three broad sets of factors moderate the relationship between gender and work-related networks: sex stratification, interaction dynamics, and gender beliefs and identities. Women are under-represented in executive positions and men and women are segregated into different jobs, occupations, firms, and industries such that women are over-represented in lower paying jobs (Baron and Pfeffer 1994, Reskin 1993). Men and women interact on a daily basis in social life, but the structure of gender roles outside the workplace is such that they engage in different activities and form part of different social circles outside of work (Ross 1987). Voluntary group activities, for example, mirror and reinforce the gender segregation found in the workplace (McPherson and Smith Lovin 1986). Furthermore, as in the workplace, women’s social roles tend to be lower in status and prestige than men’s; as a result, although men and women interact frequently, only a minority of these cross-gender interactions occur between people of roughly equivalent power and status (Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1999).

Kanter (1977) established the effects of differences in power, opportunity, and numbers on interaction dynamics and individual attitudes. Interaction dynamics, which are both cause and consequence of stratification inside and outside the workplace, further reinforce differences in networks via several mechanisms. Well-documented preferences for homophily, i.e., same-gender interaction, lead men and women to organize discretionary interaction within different social circles (Smith-Lovin and McPherson 1993). Preferences for interaction with high status individuals—those who are powerful and upwardly mobile—influence the dynamics of interpersonal attraction and network formation (Ibarra 1992). But, ‘female’ is a lower ascribed status than ‘male’ (Ridgeway 1991). Thus, for women, preferences for homo-phily and preferences for status conflict, while these preferences are congruent for men. This serves to further segregate networks and aids in the perpetuation of stereotypic beliefs about gender and work competency (Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1999). Gender beliefs and identities, which are themselves a product of interaction patterns, affect how people interact with the constraints of their structural contexts, shaping what contacts men and women seek and how they negotiate their interactions (Ridgeway and Smith-Lovin 1999).

In sum, the literature on work networks suggests that social structures, social interaction, and social identities intertwine to differentiate women’s and men’s networks. Macrostructural demographic and job stratification patterns interact with the microdynamics of interpersonal exchange and identity construction to reinforce gender differences in networks as well as in the types of networks that each need in order to further their attainment. Below is reviewed the research evidence in each of these areas.

1. Differences In Networks

Structuralists have typically studied how men and women enter the occupational world with different human capital and how they are distributed in different jobs, hierarchical levels, firms, and even industries. These structural factors account for most of the differences observed in men and women’s networks and related mobility outcomes. When men and women hold similar jobs, occupations, and hierarchical levels, they have similar networks and attain equally central informal positions (Brass 1985, Ibarra 1992, Miller 1986, Burt 1992, Aldrich et al. 1989, Moore 1990).

Regardless of position, however, organizational demography affects networks by regulating the availability of same-gender contacts that are also influential (Ibarra 1992). Compared to men, therefore, women typically have fewer, high-status, same-gender contacts available to them for work-related interaction (Ibarra 1992). As a result, women working in maledominated industries, firms, or jobs tend to develop ‘functionally segregated’ networks with personal and professional contacts relegated to different, rarely overlapping networks. This differs from the networks of their male counterparts, who tend to develop more ‘multiplex’ network relationships, i.e., relationships that have both a personal and professional dimension, rather than just one. The trust and loyalty associated with coaching and advocacy for promotion is more likely to develop in relationships defined by multiple dimensions (Kanter 1977).

Outside the workplace, family and life-course factors also produce similar structural effects. Kinship ties tend to account for a greater proportion of women’s ties and this effect is heightened with child rearing when the effects of occupation are held constant (Campbell 1988, Fischer and Oliker 1983, Moore 1990). Sex segregation of activities inside and outside the workplace, therefore, limits the status of contacts and multiplexity of women’s work relationships and thus the career instrumentality of their network.

2. Differences In The Relationship Between Networks And Professional Outcomes

More recent research suggests that, due to the structural factors outlined above, women must use different network means to achieve the same career goals as men. Many studies, reviewed in more detail below, find that an interaction between gender and human capital or structural position—rather than main effects for either—explains network characteristics.

Men appear to be better able than women to convert positional and human capital resources such as hierarchical rank, educational attainment, and external professional contacts into access to central network positions (Ibarra 1992, Miller 1986, Miller et al. 1981). Burt (1992) found that men furthered their career mobility by creating networks rich in ‘bridging ties’ to people who were not directly connected to one another. Women, by contrast, required strong ties to strategic partners to signal their legitimacy and thus contribute to their advancement. He argues that networks dominated by strong ties, i.e., relationships high in emotional intensity, intimacy, or frequency of interaction (Granovetter 1982), while detrimental for men are beneficial for women by serving to compensate for their lower status and legitimacy in the managerial world. In a study of Fortune 500 middle managers, Ibarra (1997) found that fast-track men reported networks much like those of Burt’s highly mobile managers, while the fast-track women built networks that were higher in both the tie strength and range of contacts. These findings are consistent with Granovetter’s (1982) argument that weak ties are less advantageous for people in socially or economically insecure positions.

Women may also develop different network routes in order to compensate for the few women available to them in the workplace. Men’s workplace ties are primarily with men, regardless of the type of relationship involved; for women, by contrast, contacts with men provide certain types of instrumental access, while relationships with a mix of men and women serve as sources of social support and friendship (Ibarra 1992, Lincoln and Miller 1979). Brass (1985) found that homophilous workplace networks were more detrimental for women than for men because those who control the promotion process tend to be male. Ibarra (1997), by contrast, found that samegender ties help managerial women advance. When women are under-represented in managerial and professional ranks, homophilous ties play a critical role in helping those in the minority gain advice from others who have had similar experiences. A beneficial side effect is that reaching out to other women typically requires women to extend their network links beyond the immediate workgroups or functional areas, adding breadth and range to their networks.

3. Effects Of Identity On Networks

Network behavior is not only driven by instrumental motives such as career advancement. People initiate and maintain relationships as expressions of valued social identities, and participate in activities and institutions that are congruent with those identities (Stryker and Serpe 1982). Gender identity, therefore, may affect a person’s choice of social contexts (within which different types of potential network contacts are more or less available) as well as the discretionary contacts that are developed within those contexts. But, the simple existence of homophily on some trait is not sufficient motive for tie formation (Ibarra 1997).

Women vary in the strength of their identification with their multiple identities, and this fact may explain large within-gender group differences in network homophily. Chatman and Brown (1996) found that social identity mediates the effects of demographic similarity at the dyadic level on friendship formation in business school student networks. Thus, identification with one’s gender group explains variance in the formation and nature of network ties over and above that explained by demography. Demography, however, is still expected to play an important role because ascribed categories such as gender acquire their meaning in the context of social interaction (Wharton 1992). In work environments in which the distribution of power and status favors men numerically, the extent to which gender is a salient identity will affect women’s interaction choices. Ely (1994), for example, found a correlation between the organizational demography of law firms and the quality of peer and hierarchical relationships among women in those firms. She argued that this correlation was mediated by the extent to which the women in those firms identified with each other on the basis of gender.

People have multiple identities (e.g., consultant, wife, mother, tennis player, Protestant) that vary in their importance to the individual and in the degree to which they are reinforced or embedded in one’s network (Stryker and Serpe 1982). Stryker and Serpe argue that a person’s ‘commitment’ to any given identity is a function of the number, affective importance, and multiplexity of network ties that are formed by the person when enacting the identity. As discussed above, the demographics of the workplace and social groups outside work make it easier for men’s personal and professional contacts to work synergistically; women’s are more likely to be uniplex, or valuable on a single dimension.

This pattern is exacerbated by life course and family factors because gender interacts statistically with major family transitions to change network patterns (Elder and O’Rand 1995). Munch et al. (1997) found that childbirth leads women to drop their job and career-related ties in order to limit the overall size of their networks, while men substitute family ties for male social friends, but without losing job contacts. Changes in family status, therefore, are associated with changes in patterns of social relations, which shape and give meaning to women’s and men’s experiences, both in their families and jobs. The network configurations created by major family transitions, in turn, will shape the hierarchical ordering of social identities and the cultural assumptions that women and men make about the appropriate balance of job-and family-related work. Changes in network characteristics associated with family transitions may explain cohort and individual differences in women’s responses to job–family demands.

4. Conclusion

The existing evidence suggests that different network configurations are effective in promoting the careers of men and women. In most organizations men and women differ in the jobs they hold, in their opportunity for informal interaction with high-status, same-gender others, and the expectations that govern their interactions with others. Outside the workplace, men and women are subject to different role demands. They come to develop different types of networks because they are, in fact, operating in different social contexts that require different network configurations to accomplish similar objectives. These findings raise critical questions for future research on the interaction between gender and networks as it affects the demographics of the workplace and course of careers. They suggest that future research should shift focus from comparing men’s and women’s networks towards exploring why different networks work for women and men, and what factors affect the formation of networks with such characteristics.

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