Men are good at analytics, women are good at social skills, or so runs popular belief. However, in the workplace it is men who hold the advantage when it comes to using social networks, it seems.
Raina Brands, a psychologist and assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, is a specialist in the study of informal interaction in the workplace.
While business schools have built their reputations on teaching formal skills – understanding a balance sheet or devising a corporate strategy – Prof Brands believes informal interactions, such as friendship networks, play a powerful role in any organisation. And it is men who gain the upper hand in using these networks for career advantage, she says.
Why are networks so important?
Informal networks of friendship and advice make the workplace a more pleasant place, but these networks can benefit companies too, says Prof Brands.
“Organisations in which employees have strong friendship networks tend to be more resilient in a crisis,” she says. “In a crisis people respond better because they can help both their company and their friend.”
Research shows that in companies with strong friendship networks, people are more engaged and there is a lot of evidence that engagement leads to competitive advantage, she adds.
Why do networks benefit men?
Research shows that we all tend to prefer people who are similar to us – “homophily” is the technical term for this. This tendency is stronger for men, so men tend to prefer to be friends with other men, says Prof Brands.
This means that even though women are more likely to try to develop friendships across the gender divide, men are less likely to reciprocate friendship with women than they are with their male colleagues.
Because high-level managers are more likely to be men, men tend to have friends at higher levels in the organisation, which benefits their careers, she continues. “Women are often excluded from friendships at higher levels.”
What other problems do women face?
One of the biggest problems is that women face a warmth/competition trade off. The more competitive you are as a woman, the more you are perceived to be losing warmth, which is negative. “Men just don’t face this Catch-22, this double bind.”
One group of people who are very important to an organisation are what Prof Brands defines as brokers – individuals who span disconnected social networks in an organisation and who can therefore channel communications around the organisation.
We traditionally see women as relationship experts, she says, but brokers are seen as entrepreneurial and this trait usually equates with men. When women take on the role of broker they are seen as breaking the stereotype, which counts against them. Male brokers, on the other hand, are very successful in their careers.
What can women do?
Women need to find sponsors, someone who can champion their case in the organisation, she says. “Women need to cultivate this … If you are interested in getting ahead it is probably in your interest getting to know people in other parts of the company.”
Women also need to ask for help and senior women are often keen to be mentors.
What can you teach MBA students?
MBA students need to be able to recognise and be aware of these networks and to be able to spot the people who have informal power. “Then we teach them how to use this social capital.”
Isn’t this just opportunism?
“You need to develop relationships, but if you are seen to be behaving instrumentally, you will be penalised,” warns Prof Brands. For once, this is something that applies to both women and men.