Do male schmoozers block females from climbing the career ladder?

Subconscious and subtle mechanisms partly explain why women still experience career progression challenges and pay gaps, writes UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel

More than 80 per cent of women feel excluded from networking activities at work. 'Too bad,' thinks the male reader, 'but I'm not guilty of that.' That same survey shows that 92 per cent of men believe they are not excluding women. Could 8 per cent of men be responsible for the 80 per cent of women who feel excluded? I don't think so, no.

Men are largely unaware of how they stick together and build informal friendships. It's called schmoozing. You used to have old boys’ networks at golf clubs and restaurants. Today you are probably more likely to cycle together or support the same football club.

But schmoozing does not necessarily need a club, it also happens by chance. You walk with the whole team, men and women, to a joint lunch. Two men talk to each other and perhaps step ahead a little faster. The result is that, having arrived at the restaurant, they also sit next to each other at the table and continue their intimate conversation there.

UNSW Business School's Professor Frederik Anseel.jpg
UNSW Business School's Professor Frederik Anseel says research suggests that a critical mass of women in leadership positions is needed to stop unconscious biases. Photo: supplied

Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. But they are subconscious and subtle mechanisms that partly explain why it is more difficult for women to advance to top positions and why there is still a pay gap. That sounds too crazy, you say? It also took me a while to digest. But please take a moment to follow the research below that was recently published in the American Economic Review, the Valhalla of economics research.

The schmoozing benefits of smoke breaks

The researchers analysed four years of data from a company with 15,000 employees, 1300 of whom were managers. In that period, they identified 8670 "transitions", where a manager rotated from one team to another. In the two-and-a-half years following such a transition, men who switched from a female to a male manager received a salary increase that was 15 per cent higher than that of men who stayed with a female manager. But, conversely, when men switched from a male manager to a female manager, they received a salary increase that was 7.5 per cent lower than that of employees who stayed with a male manager.

Read more: Four ways managers can support women in leadership

Interesting, but what does that have to do with schmoozing? Schmoozing consists of informal meetings where managers and employees get to know each other better, and employees can win the sympathy and favour of their manager. The male-to-male advantage was high when male managers and male employees worked physically close to each other. If it wasn't (for example, if they worked on different floors), it was completely absent.

Need more proof that wage effects are schmoozing-driven? The researchers tested whether there was a smoker-to-smoker benefit. Indeed, not only did male smoking employees who switched from a non-smoking male manager to a smoking male manager spend more breaks with their new managers, but they were also promoted faster. No such effect was observed for non-smoking employees. What a shared smoke break can't do!

Again: these schmoozing behaviours are not necessarily done on purpose to benefit their careers. No one is to blame. Humans have a natural tendency to seek out the company of people who are similar to them. It is easier for men to talk to other men, and for women to interact with other women.

Male smoking employees who spend more breaks with smoking managers are promoted faster.jpg
Not only did male smoking employees who switched from a non-smoking male manager to a smoking male manager spend more breaks with their new managers, but they were also promoted faster. Photo: Adobe

Furthering female leadership ambition

However, the effects are detrimental to women's careers. A recent analysis found 91 per cent of ASX 300 company CEOs are men, with 82 per cent of CEO pipeline roles also being held by men. Furthermore, only 23 per cent of ASX 300 companies had gender-balanced leadership teams, while 28 companies had no women in their executive leadership teams.

But the subtle mechanisms identified by the clever study described above are difficult to identify and perhaps impossible to avoid. The result is that many women feel excluded, while men are not aware they are doing it.

I probably don't have to explain why working in a hybrid way can reinforce those kinds of effects. Since covid, most businesses (and in particular their employees) have embraced hybrid working. It offers all kinds of flexibility. Women, in particular, have been found to be more likely to work from home than man because it offers them additional flexibility to combine work with family and caring responsibilities (a combination that, on average, seem to still fall more on women than men). Over time, such choices may mean that they are even less exposed to opportunities to build personal relationships at work and further hurt their career progress. Hybrid working may not always be a blessing.

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In times of talent scarcity, it is incomprehensible that organisations leave so much female (leadership) talent unused and undervalued. Organisations can and must take action. Research suggests that a critical mass of women in leadership positions is needed to stop unconscious biases. More women in leadership positions can counter schmoozing effects and help talented women realise their leadership ambitions.

Frederik Anseel is Professor of Management and Senior Deputy Dean (Academic) at UNSW Business School. His research focuses on the motivational micro-foundations of how people contribute to organisational success. For more information, please contact Prof. Anseel directly. A version of this post was first published in De Tijd.


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