Friendships forged outside work can hold women back

Herminia Ibarra Women & Work The Financial Times

In a recent Financial Times column, Sarah Gordon was right to take the Garrick Club to task, not just on its second vote to refuse women members but on the most disingenuous of explanations about why some members think such an exclusion is harmless. Work is never discussed or business conducted at the club, they told her; it is verboten.

It’s a lame justification because, as Ms Gordon points out, there is no interdiction on making friends — forging the social bonds that increase trust and create comfort when it comes to hiring, promoting and dealmaking. And through the magic of “six degrees of separation” (or four degrees, as Facebook now reports), those bonds reverberate across social distance and pay off at work, whether the boss is a member of the Garrick or not.

Any single organisation can strive to operate as a meritocracy but no business is an island. We all live and work in a vast network of relationships that criss-crosses companies, industries, for-profit and non-profit sectors, and leisure pursuits.

People whose ties reach and connect across these various interstices profit — they get jobs, promotions, higher pay and, often, better ideas as they can cross-pollinate.

Much of the global business and professional elite remains visibly male-dominated, with the senior women executives disproportionately concentrated in support functions like HR. This we know. Gender-segregation in our extracurricular activities, however, remains the dirty little secret of “second-generation bias”, the name often used to describe that intangible “something in the water” that continues to produce unequal gender outcomes despite no outward intent to discriminate against women.

Here’s how it works. Years ago I conducted a study to look at gender differences in workplace networks. When I compared men and women in similar jobs, many of the expected differences washed out. But one was highly significant and consequential. Men were much more likely than women to turn to the same people for work-related advice and conversation as they did for socialising outside of work.

By contrast, women were statistically more likely to have what I called “functionally differentiated” networks: they turned to different people for work and play. Sometimes this was by conscious choice. Rarely was it harmless. People with overlapping job-related and social networks tended to be more central in the organisation’s informal webs of information exchange and influence. They had more clout.

Similar scenarios continue to play out, with real consequences for women.

When Harvard Business School’s Boris Groysberg and Deborah Bell teamed up with executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles to study the gender dynamics of corporate boards, they found that token women often fail to be influential because they are consistently excluded from an informal network that discusses issues of import outside the board meetings, in gatherings such as golf games and private dinners.

The academics also studied the personal pursuits and extracurricular activities of the same board directors. Not surprisingly, the results broke by gender: a greater percentage of women than men named arts and culture, philanthropy and community service as outside interests, whereas a greater percentage of men than women named “sports and fitness” as an interest.

And among those interested in sports, the percentage of male directors who played golf (40 per cent) was twice that of female directors who did (20 per cent).

Whatever their origin, what is important about these personal interests is that they are most often cultivated in organisations such as non-profit boards, civic groups and sports clubs. In such groups, one’s private thoughts are more likely to be shared with a member of the same sex than would be the case at work, sociologists have demonstrated.

Business is and always has been based on trust, and trust requires both common ground and a setting in which it can be nurtured. Shared membership in an elite club is one form of common ground, certainly not the only form, but a powerful force in forging friendships, shaping opinion and creating shared understanding.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015 (registration required).