Breaking Gender Stereotypes in Professional Networks

Consider the unique challenges women face in high-status professional networks and the systemic changes needed for true equity.

It’s up to workplace systems—and not women alone—to break down gender stereotypes before female professionals can achieve true equity, inclusion, and belonging at work, according to recent faculty research in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.

The need for systemic change is the focus of studies by Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory, and Laurie Weingart, the Richard M. and Margaret S. Cyert professor of organizational behavior and theory at the Tepper School.

The Downside of High-Status Networks

In countless business books and career-development seminars, the message has always been clear: surround yourself with higher-status colleagues to move up at work. Study after study in the last four decades has confirmed this.

Most of this research has been conducted on men in managerial roles. The findings were thought to apply to everyone, but new research studying both men and women shows high-status networking is far less effective for women—and can even have the opposite effect. The study, by Catherine Shea and Siyu Yu of the University of Michigan, found that women who networked with higher-status colleagues were viewed negatively by coworkers. Their status even diminished over time.

“People love to tell women to build their network because it puts the onus on women to do something. It’s really easy advice, and it’s actionable,” Shea said. “But it’s not as simple as ‘change your network, change your life,’ because a lot of what we’re telling women is based on research that was done on all-male samples.”

Catherine Shea, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory
Catherine Shea, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory

Shea and Yu studied three field sites in China and surveyed more than 2,000 American adults to see how they view female colleagues who have high-status networks. Each person in the work unit answered questions about how much respect, admiration, and influence everyone else in the unit had, and they also identified their own network of people from whom they seek advice.

Having high-status contacts in their networks didn’t boost others’ view of the women who had them. In fact, the opposite happened as their status gradually declined over time. This didn’t happen to the men in the study. Previous research shows that society takes a dim view of ambitious, assertive women. These traits are not in line with expectations that women be nurturing and communal, putting others’ needs before their own.

“If I am surrounded by high-status people, people should infer something about me,” Shea explained. “What we’re actually inferring about women when they’re building these high-status networks is that they’re dominant. And we don’t like dominant women as a rule, because they are not pro-group.”

The study showed that when women framed their success as supportive of the group, colleagues viewed their success positively. Shea expressed that while this might help fuel success for some, not every woman is going to want to do that.

“The issue of women’s success is not going to be solved by telling women to do something differently. We have to consider the foundation that they’re based upon and realize that there are just differing expectations in the world.” 

What is needed are structural solutions that build a framework for opportunities—not just for women, but for all underrepresented people. The kind of information people seek in high-status networks is tacit information about how things work. Shea emphasized that this should be freely available to everyone.

“We shouldn’t have to have insider information to get a promotion or try to get on people’s agendas to figure it out. This should be really clear with our metrics and our performance evaluation systems.”

The Volunteering Trap

When it comes to planning the office party or serving on a committee, who raises a hand to volunteer? 

Headshot of Professor Laurie Weingart. Click to view CMU Scholar Research page.
Laurie R. Weingart, Richard M. and Margaret S. Cyert Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory

Women are more likely than their male colleagues to say yes to tasks outside their job description, stealing time that could be spent on work that fuels their professional advancement, Weingart explains. Studies have shown that this has serious repercussions for their careers and further embeds gender inequity in the workplace.

“This is really a universal phenomenon,” said Weingart, co-author of “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work,” which explores a gender dynamic so ingrained it often goes unnoticed. “It’s so tied into traditional gender roles and expectations about what men do versus what women do.”

The book explores a series of experiments where Weingart and her colleagues Lise Vesterlund, a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, Linda Babcock, a Carnegie Mellon professor of economics; and Marie Recalde, an associate professor of economics at the University of Melbourne. Their research on why this was happening stemmed from observations in their own lives, as well as previous studies based on self-reported data.

In their studies, they conducted lab experiments of decision-making in mixed-gender trios. Women were 50 percent more likely than men to be the first to volunteer. But in the same experiment using single-gender groups, the rate of volunteering rose in the male groups, and it went down in the female groups. The study confirmed that internalized gender stereotypes drove the decision—not enjoyment of the task.

“That tells us that this is not due to personality, or something about women versus men,” Weingart stated. “It has to do with these shared norms of who’s expected to do what.”

In another experiment, a fourth person was added in the role of a manager asking for a volunteer. In this case, managers were more likely to ask women to complete the task than men—and women were more likely to say yes. Managers even predicted women, not men, would step up.

To change the dynamic, it is not enough for women to say no when they want to, Weingart emphasized that where male coworkers might be seen as busy, studies have shown this flags as “selfish” for women.

“It becomes this conundrum where, even if I realize I shouldn’t be doing this work because I have to do more promotable work, I can’t say no,” she said. “There will be a backlash. We get into this cycle where it shows up in my performance evaluation, not because I wanted to do this other work, but because I was expected to.”

“The hope is that it will pay off in the long run, but the reality is it doesn’t,” Weingart adds.

The study calls for updated systems and team leadership practices that shed light on the hidden gender dynamic and circumvent it.

“We design systems that lean on women to do non-promotable work,” Weingart explained. “We also just assume that this is an efficient and effective distribution when, in fact, there are some really insidious and negative repercussions.” 

Instead, managers could be intentional about tracking how these duties are distributed and reassign them if needed. Some tasks, even if they don’t seem important, are an essential part of the vision and mission of the team; assigning them to roles where they matter in a performance review benefits everyone.

Weingart offers an example from her own experience. Faculty were expected to organize conferences, highly logistical work that’s not only outside their core teaching and research responsibilities but a skill many faculty don’t have. The work was transferred to a staff role as a promotable task.

“Little things like that can make a big difference,” she stated.