“The old boys’ club” is alive and well and accounts for a third of the gender gap

Networking is a fickle skill to tackle. Sometimes making new connections is hard, forcing you to make awkward small talk and “put yourself out there.” But sometimes, networking comes naturally and you find yourself bonding over similar interests. While this is certainly the best way to make helpful connections, a new study finds that this natural networking, or “male schmoozing” is actually providing an unequal advantage to men over women in today’s workforce.

We already know that women have it harder when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder. According to the 2019 Women in the Workplace report, 48% of entry-level employees are women, but only 38% of middle management is female, 22% at the C-Suite level, and 5% at the CEO level.

Authors Zoë Cullen, from Harvard Business School, and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, from the University of California, Los Angeles,  found that the “boys’ club” isn’t just something you hear about in old movies, but actually still affects the way professionals’ careers advance in the modern-day workforce, playing a huge role in the current gender wage gap.

Male “schmoozing” gives men promotion advantages

The authors studied this phenomenon between genders using data from a large financial institution, using an event study analysis of manager rotation to estimate the effect of managers’ gender on their employees’ career progression.

The study found that when male employees are assigned to male managers, they are promoted faster in the following years than they would have been if they were assigned to female managers. However, female employees have the same career progression regardless of their manager’s gender, and actually, according to the authors, this advantage explains a third of the gender gap in promotions.

The authors state that men have an unfair advantage over their female counterparts by having the ability to “schmooze, network, and interact with more powerful men in ways that are less accessible to women,” which can create a self-perpetuating cycle of powerful men promoting men under them.

The study found that male employees are promoted faster after they transition from a female to a male manager. At 10 quarters after this sort of transition took place, male employees increased their pay grades by an additional 0.53 points, which is roughly equivalent to 13% higher pay compared to male employees that experienced a transition from a female manager to a different female manager.

On the flip side, female employees had the same career progression regardless of the gender of the manager that they transitioned to.

Socialization mechanism

The authors found that the career advancement opportunities that men experienced are only present if the employee works in close proximity to their manager, suggesting that socialization plays a huge role in this phenomenon.

The survey data also shows that for a male employee, having a male manager increases the share of breaks taken with that manager. The data surveyed found that after transitioning from a female to male manager, male employees spend more time with their managers.

Within the sample of male employees and male managers, a shock to socialization increases the subsequent promotion rates.

Smoking managers vs. non-smoking managers

While the story of the “smoke break” also seems like one of the past, the authors used anecdotal evidence to find that when male employees who smoke switch to male managers who smoke, they spend more of their breaks spending time with their manager and as a result are promoted faster in the following years.

The “socialization shock” the authors chose to study is the transition from non-smoking managers to smoking managers. In the sample analyzed, 33% of male employees smoke and 37% of male managers smoked. The data found that transitioning from a non-smoking manager to a smoking manager increases how often the smoking employees socialize with their managers, while non-smoking employees saw no change.

The authors then looked into how these differences affect promotion rates and found that transitioning from a non-smoking manager to a smoking manager increases the subsequent promotion rates of smoking employees and has no effect on the promotions of non-smoking employees.

Why this finding matters

“We hope this methodology will be applied to other firms, countries, and industries, which will help to generalize the findings and identify where these biases are more or less problematic,” the authors wrote. “Our findings have implications for policies aimed at reducing gender gaps in pay and leadership. Companies can reduce favoritism by changing their promotion review systems.”

The authors suggest that involving multiple managers in promotion decisions can make it harder for employees, whether male or female, to use socialization as a way to schmooze their way into a promotion.

Another tactic is to use objective indicators, such as sales revenues and hours worked, in employee review processes as an unbiased method of analysis.

An additional strategy to curb these gender gaps is to level the social opportunities within the company by promoting gender-neutral social activities.