Do Social Networks Help Advance Women? We Answered This for The New York Times
“How do you move past the traditional, male-centric webs of power to galvanize and advance women through strategic, diverse and collaborative social networks?”
That was the question posed to me last week at the New York Times New Rules: Women, Leadership and a Playbook for Change. I was thrilled and honored to help define new rules for gender equity in the company of industry experts, practitioners, policymakers and cultural icons like Anita Hill, Reshma Saujani, Alicia Menendez and Elaine Welteroth leading the way to make workplaces more diverse, inclusive and equitable. Throughout the day and a half summit, we explored the unique challenges and opportunities women face in the workplace with an ambitious and actionable goal in mind: “to create a boldly inclusive vision of the workplace - and transform it into reality.”
One of the central features of the program, and one of the most unique and engaging parts of the day, was that each session’s speaker and attendees were tasked with generating new rules for advancing women in the workplace. The working group I led brainstormed solutions to build strategic social networks, a theme close to my heart and one I fiercely believe is key to galvanizing and advancing women - all women - in the workplace and beyond.
I grounded our discussion with a selection of statistics from a 2018 report on women in the workplace from McKinsey & Co and Leanin.org and a 2018 report on women of color in the workplace from Catalyst, which underscore the dismal progress made to date across corporate America when it comes to the proportion of women - all women - at every level.
22% of C-suite executives are women
Women make up 48% of entry-level employers, but their share dips to 38% at the manager level and continues to decrease the higher up you look.
In S&P 500 companies, women of color only make up 9.8% of first- and mid-level officials and managers, and 5% of executive and senior-level officials / managers
With companies increasingly stating their commitment to gender and racial diversity yet yielding limited results, a new study by Korn Ferry and The Conference Board highlights the persisting systemic barriers to gender equity: pay inequity, hiring manager bias and accountability, a lack of sponsors and champions, and a lack of programmatic support for the integration of work and life.
So why do we keep on getting this wrong?
For years women have been offered a host of solutions to advance in the workplace: Get a good sponsor. Get the right assignment with high visibility. Lean in. Prove yourself as a dependable team player. Build the right relationships. But those levers aren’t working -- especially when it comes to gaining access to networks of power and influence like those of the traditional boys’ club.
Here are a few ways women can create a strong and impactful social network.
1 - Set strategic goals
To be truly effective, building a strong social network should be managed like a strategic business activity where you begin by defining your goals and objectives, what you want to accomplish and how. Do you need a sponsor within the company to get to the next level? Do you need a mentor or colleague to help keep you accountable for your goals? How will you help amplify each others’ accomplishments more broadly? How will you invest in developing a deep connection to your network?
2 - Nurture your female tribe
Without a sense of collaboration, networks are glorified contact lists. Strong relationships are built through a combination of frequent engagement, deep interaction and time spent together.
A recent study from Kellogg University finds that while both men and women benefit from having access to a highly connected and diverse professional network, the most successful women benefited most from a tight-knit female circle. Researchers found that for women to overcome the cultural and systemic barriers that limit their advancement, they needed to form close, trusting relationships with other women who could offer gender-specific practical guidance, for example, negotiating tactics for a new job, or introductions to other powerful women and men.
3 - Truly lean into diversity
Chasms between women, especially white women and women of color, happen because they have not done enough work to really get to know each other and to individualize each other. To begin with, we can aim to build confidence and comfort level with our own relationships to difference, especially race. What I want to underscore here is that white women have a responsibility to be intentional in using their power and influence to remove barriers and clear the advancement path for all women. If we don’t overcome the silences and denials surrounding privilege and abuses of power in the workplace as they manifest across gender and race, we can’t rise together.
4 - Interact and transact in meaningful ways
Women traditionally have trouble asking for help because they don’t want to appear weak or impose. Learn to be clear and intentional with your asks, and create space for others to do the same. When I host gatherings at my home, I set aside time to make an ask and create space for others to do the same. Each time, without fail, the group comes alive, and solutions and offers float through the room. Imagine if we were to create those safe spaces in the workplace?
5 - Enlist male allies
When male leaders share their social capital with women, change happens. Given their spheres of influence, they are in unique positions to learn of opportunities before they’re public, put names in the hat of those not initially considered the obvious choice, and offer thoughtful guidance along the way. Bottom line, we don’t work in a gender vacuum. In order to balance power dynamics and advance women in the workplace, men need to be part of the solution. You can begin by inviting male colleagues to join you at events such as the New York Times New Rules Summit and later engage them in a discussion about how to bring what you have learned back to your organization. Approach male leaders with honesty and curiosity, help them see and understand the hurdles women face in the workplace, especially women of color, through straightforward conversation, and invite them in to solve for the cultural and systemic hurdles that hold organizations back from achieving gender equity.
6 - Amplify ALL women
Whether we realize it or not, we - men and women - reduce the chances of women’s empowerment when we don’t stand up for them, advocate for them or sponsor them. One way to begin understanding how to advance women is by asking them directly: “What do you feel are the biggest barriers to your success and what role can I play in helping to remove them?” The key here is to center on her and your genuine interest in her potential. So much in the workplace is centered on space for white men and women. Throughout my corporate career, when a white male or female leader has said to me: “Tell us what we need to do.” “What I’ve heard is, ‘I need help and you’re here to help me as a woman of color’. This doesn’t feel centered on real genuine interest in catalyzing my potential. As a woman of color who needed to learn how to navigate the workplace in the early part of my career, those questions would have made a huge difference.
We don’t need to emulate men’s networks and practices, in fact, it doesn’t help. What can drive concrete and lasting change for all women in the workplace? Strategic, close knit, diverse and collaborative networks.