We know several reasons that men get ahead of women as employees and entrepreneurs. There are cultural beliefs that men are better for work and more committed to it than to family life. Men in powerful positions tend to promote men because they are similar to them. And many occupations and forms of entrepreneurship are seen as archetypically male, suggesting that parents might consider advising their daughters against training to become a plumber or a computer programmer. Given all these biases, would it be possible for one more to exist?
Research by Mabel Abraham in Administrative Science Quarterly has uncovered one more form of discrimination in a sample of entrepreneurs. It is a subtle one, but the effect is strong. Suppose an entrepreneur wants to initiate a network connection with someone else in order to start resource exchange -- as a customer, supplier, or collaborator. Would it matter for a woman whether she initiates that contact directly or whether she does so by asking another entrepreneur to make a referral? The answer is yes. If the woman is engaged in a typically male activity, her contacts are much less likely to refer her to their contacts. Why? Because women would not be the usual choice for a transaction partner in that activity, and people worry about how their referrals are judged by others.
Importantly, this effect is specific to women. Men engaged in typically female activities are just as likely to be referred to contacts as women. Women and men in neutral activities are just as likely to be referred to contacts. It is only when referring women to their contacts in typically male activities that people stop and think: is she the usual choice, or is there something wrong about a woman doing this occupation or building this kind of venture? Abraham’s analysis showed that the difference in results was sizable. If an occupation was between 50 and 60 percent male, a man could expect to get about 5 more referrals than a woman would get each year, and this gap grew wider in occupations with higher percentages of men (see the graph).
This difference is important because selectivity in referrals occurs before any of the other biases. Once a woman has been referred to a contact, that contact might still hold beliefs against the suitability of women as entrepreneurs or might be a male who prefers to interact with other males. Biased referrals mean that the potential connection can’t even decide whether to discriminate (or not). The absence of a referral is already a form of discrimination.
Given these effects, no wonder women entrepreneurs have to build their own business networks: they are not getting help from others if their occupation has a majority of men – as most highly paid occupations do. Abraham’s research showed that when making direct contacts, rather than referrals, there was no difference between women and men. So contrary to one popular belief, women aren’t too shy to build networks. Instead, it is sometimes their male network contacts who are reluctant to refer them to others.
Abraham, Mabel. Gender-role Incongruity and Audience-based Gender Bias: An Examination of Networking among Entrepreneurs. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.