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Michigan Ross Professor Explores Gender Barriers to Career Networking

Professor Siyu Yu explores gender stereotypes and networking

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Siyu Yu, assistant professor of management and operations, delves into her new research on how stereotypes affect women’s ability to form instrumental networks for career growth.

In collaboration with Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at the Tepper School of Business, the research provides commentary on why women's representation in influential roles remains low. As previous research has discovered, women are proportionately underrepresented in managerial, executive, and CEO positions. To counteract this, many have suggested increased networking opportunities for women in business. Recent research confirms that high-status networks generally offer career advancement benefits across industries. However, Yu and Shea’s research discovered that networking has surprisingly different results for men and women.

“We discovered that when women form instrumental networks with higher-status colleagues, other co-workers react negatively — but not so to men — because of stereotypes and biases about how women should behave. This backlash causes the women to lose status in the eyes of others,” wrote Yu and Shea.

Their study found that while men enjoyed status boosts due to developing comprehensive professional networks, women's status gradually declined. The research suggests as women displayed the standard assertiveness necessary for establishing high-status networks, they faced social penalties due to prevailing stereotypes.

When women are perceived as assertive and forceful, they are seen as unlikable and lower-status, research has shown. Feminine stereotypes say that women — more so than men — need to put the needs of the group and others ahead of their own self-interest. So, we infer that people presume a woman whose network is centering on high-status individuals is gathering resources for herself at the expense of others in the group.

With this research in mind, organizations can implement strategies to promote more inclusive work environments for women. One strategy explored in the op-ed is advertising networking events as more communal gatherings rather than explicitly for the purpose of creating high-status professional networks. In addition to organizational measures, the research suggests that there are ways for women to counterbalance gender-based barriers and avoid social penalties. One strategy explored in the op-ed is signaling a group-oriented motive. While this strategy could help women navigate bias, the researchers caution it is a workaround accommodating gender stereotypes rather than a long-term solution to ending them.

Our research shouldn’t discourage women from networking with high-status people; by all means, such connections should be encouraged and actively pursued. Instead, we hope that with a few reframing strategies and organizational changes, we can overcome the stereotypes that women may face when building their networks so they can fully reap the rewards of having high-status connections.

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