The Hidden Barrier To Women's Success

We often encourage women to "lean in" and grasp leadership opportunities as if they themselves are the only factors influencing their careers. However, according to a study just presented at the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology, women's social capital — the status they gain from the people around them — is a critical factor in their attainment of leadership roles.

Natasha Abajian, a postgraduate student at City University London, interviewed 12 women who were either CEOs or Managing Directors in the communications industry. They all cited social capital as a major factor in achieving their positions, saying that they networked and used their connections in a non-gender-stereotypical manner on their way to the tops of their companies.

But there's a problem with that: "Usually women have less access to networks typically associated with career progression," Abajian said in a press release. "These networks or 'who you know and who knows you' are responsible for a large percentage of career progression so limited access could be a barrier to women's opportunities."

The women Abajian interviewed agreed that most women didn't have the resources or opportunities to use their connections to their advantage. She also added that "glass ceiling" metaphors may mask this problem by painting a picture of a business world that is equitable up until the very top. "It's interesting to examine the perspectives of women who have broken through the glass ceiling," she said in the press release. "However, I believe this phrase, by depicting a single obstacle at a high level, fails to account for the subtle inequalities that arise throughout a career journey."

Indeed, obstacles to women's leadership extend as far back as childhood. According to Harvard's "Leaning Out" report, parents and students alike are more likely to support student councils when they're led by boys. 23 percent of teen girls and 40 percent of boys believe men are more effective political leaders.

When women enter the workforce, these subtle biases continue to affect them at every level, which has led academics to propose alternative metaphors. In a Harvard Business Reviewarticle, Alice Eagly and Linda L. Carli propose that we should think about the sexist work culture women must continuously navigate as a "labyrinth of leadership."

"For women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected," they write, citing biases against women and demands of family life as major obstacles, in addition to "underinvestment in social capital." Confirming Abajian's results, they cite a study finding that employees promoted to managerial roles most quickly tend to socialize more with professional connections.

Women may not have the same access to social networks as men, Eagly and Carli theorize, because they take on a disproportionate amount of family duties. For example, women may be less likely to participate in office happy hours where coworkers develop relationships because they're going straight home after work to take care of their kids. The World Bank confirms that men tend to form more formal social networks due to greater focus on their careers, while women have traditionally gained social connections through their families and communities.

Eagly and Carli also point out that, even when women put in the time and effort to network, the networks they enter may be male-dominated and unwelcoming. It doesn't exactly help when networking activities include hunting and strip club visits. One study by New Zealand clothing company Stormline found that the top factor keeping women out of male-dominated professions was a "macho atmosphere."

These findings all confirm that breaking the glass whatever-you-want-to-call-it is about more than mere openness to hiring women in executive positions. Workplaces also need to create a culture where women have the opportunities necessary to attain these roles, or perhaps to deemphasize the importance of subjective, social factors in hiring altogether. Eagly and Carli suggest hiring managers use job recruitment tools instead of relying on social networks, for example, which can be skewed toward men.

"Women who want to progress to the highest levels need to be aware of the value of social capital and know how to use this to their advantage," Abajian said in a press release. However, we should be wary of putting all the responsibility on women. Networking doesn't work with every woman's schedule or work environment. Instead, both men and women with power at their companies should strive to make fewer decisions based on who knows who and focus on the qualities that really matter — because plenty of women possess them.

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