It’s been nearly half a century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed sexual discrimination.
Further legislation has been passed to root out sexist corporate-promotion practices and encourage diversity in the workplace. Womens’ groups have lobbied agencies and businesses to support and mentor female employees, and private enterprises have funded and cultivated programs to promote the advancement of women to the highest ranks.
But in 2009 women hold just 20 percent of the senior management positions in American businesses, according to the 2009 International Business Report by Grant Thornton. The glass ceiling remains firmly, invisibly, in place.
But what is responsible for the invisible barrier that allows employers to pay lip service to diversity but promote men to 80 percent of the senior management positions?
New research suggests that fewer women reach those jobs than men because they are less likely to hear about available positions from coworkers as early as their male counterparts.
"Both men and women tend to circulate the good news about job openings or opportunities when they hear about them. But looking at the quality of the job leads in terms of pay and prestige … women get poorer quality leads from other women," said Lisa Torres, a George Washington University sociology professor who studies the hiring and job-search process in corporations. "Men tend to be in the top positions in organizations so, structurally, they're in a position to hear about job openings or opportunities when they arrive, and circulate those to their networks."
Birds of a feather flock together.
The problem is not a failure in the career-development or job-search acumen of seasoned female professionals and certainly not a statement on the quality of the candidates, Torres said. It has more to do with the people with whom men and women feel most comfortable associating, she said.
Torres and Matt L. Huffman, sociology researcher at the University of California-Irvine, studied groups of men and women and tracked census data to identify patterns in the way the sexes network. The researchers detailed their findings in a 2002 study, "Social Networks and Job Search Outcomes Among Male and Female Professional, Technical, and Managerial Workers," published in Sociological Focus.
They discovered that both men and women tend to build networks comprising people of their own gender — a process known scientifically as homophily and colloquially as "birds of a feather flock together." But women tend to recognize the tendency and try to overcome it — building networks made up of about 50 percent men — while men's networks included very few women, Torres said.
According to Torres’ and Huffman’s theory of social networking: Because men hold 80 percent of the jobs in senior management (a figure that has been steadily declining), they are more likely to hear about job openings at the senior-management level. Men pass the news on to their mostly male social networks, and it is likely that news about the job opening reaches women only after it has reached and passed several men.
Who is in your network?
Bielby is a leading researcher in race and gender bias. He has been called upon as an expert witness in sexual-discrimination and bias lawsuits involving WalMart, FedEx, and Johnson & Johnson. Bielby said the professional networks women build fail to deliver the same job leads as men because of whom they choose to include.
Research into how men and women form professional relationships at work shows that women tend to be more effective at networking — at least as far as the size and cohesiveness of their professional networks are concerned, Bielby said. But that breadth still does not overcome the concentration of power in male networks.
"Women have tended to be better connected overall, but they and many of their female contacts tend to work in more female-dominated jobs," Bielby said. "So their networks may be wider but not reach to as high a level as men’s, who tend to be better connected, particularly in getting professional news, to more high-status people."
Access is only part of the issue, Torres said. The rest is an often unconscious decision about who is the most appropriate target for a tip.
"You might tell a male colleague about an opportunity that's very high demand or involves a lot of traveling,” she said, “but not a female friend because you know she has family concerns that might make that more difficult."
That may show sensitivity toward a colleague's personal situation, but not one that allows that colleague to make up her own mind about whether the job is too high stress or the travel requirements are too great, Bielby said.
While men hold 80 percent of senior management jobs, the gap in income is less severe. According to Huffman’s review of 2000 census data, women in senior management earn salaries that trail men's by only 9 percent.
The gaps persist most notably in access and perception, Torres said.
For example, in technology companies — which, like financial services, tend to be male dominated — men are 2.7 times as likely to be promoted to top technical or managerial positions than women; they are far more likely to be viewed as competent; and are four times as likely to have a partner who takes on the bulk of responsibility for home and family, according to a 2008 study by Caroline Simard, director of research at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
A third of women in technology companies deliberately delay having children to pursue career goals, and far more women than men are likely to believe extended work days and a lack of sleep are necessary to achieve success, the study concluded.
Even without gender bias, the greater number of connections men have to higher-level contacts make it more likely they'll hear about a particular opportunity than even a woman with the same background and similar contacts, Torres said.
And the higher up the ladder a candidate goes the more likely unconscious bias about race, gender or competency is to intrude on the decision-making process, Bielby said — especially in something as informal as a job reference.
"Passing on a job lead is ultimately an exercise in subjective judgment," Bielby said. "So when someone is thinking whom to tell about an opportunity — and that decision is often made unconsciously in just a split second — it may be stereotypes of what men or women are competent that makes you more or less inclined to tell a specific person."
"We like to think we're beyond those days where stereotypes matter, but we're not that far removed from it," Bielby said. "In my experience during financial-services litigation, for example, even with brokers who work only on commission, you'd think there couldn't be any bias there because the numbers tell the story. But the real issues were not the commission formula, it was in the soft decisions made about how do distribute leads or referrals and the accounts of people who leave."
Farther down the ladder, it's easier to quantify levels of performance, Torres said.
"As you get higher, the judgments invariably get more subjective. That's one reason there is still quite a pay gap between men and women in similar jobs," she said. "As you get higher on the ladder, job performance is based more on evaluation and subjective assignment. A woman lawyer may handle more cases, but are they the big cases? I may produce more as a knowledge worker, but is what you produce really first tier compared to someone else?"
Trying to legislate or organize job references to eliminate gender bias is not a good idea, Torres and Bielby agreed. That would just squelch the process altogether.
Overcoming the gender network
If women want to equal the effectiveness of male social networks, they need to emulate the men in those networks, said Torres. If male-dominated professional networks are passing jobs leads to other men before women, women should put themselves in the path of those leads, Bielby said. Women must add more men — especially high-status men — to their professional networks. Furthermore, they need to make their interests and competencies as clear as possible, he said.
"The basic insight about how job leads are passed along, which has been around for years, is that they come through ‘weak ties’ — acquaintances or friends of friends, who we don't necessarily know that well," Bielby said. "When you pass along a job lead, often that's based more on assumptions about someone you only know vaguely than anything specific about them.
"What you can do,” he added, “is cement that connection by following up with specific information about what kind of job you're looking for or sending a resume or link to a Web page with that information."