Networking for female managers' career development

Empirical evidence

Margaret Linehan

The Authors

Margaret Linehan, Cork Institute of Technology, Cork, Ireland


In recent years there has been an increase in the number of women pursuing managerial careers. Previous studies have established that, throughout Europe, women's advancement to senior domestic management positions has been very slow, despite legislative changes, including the European Union's social protocol, to enforce issues related to equal opportunity such as equal pay and sex discrimination. The number of women managers pursuing international management careers, however, remains considerably lower than the number in domestic management. Previous research has established that only 3 percent of women are international managers. The data presented in this paper assert that female managers who are not part of an organisational support network experience even further career disadvantages. Based on an extensive empirical research study conducted with senior female international managers, the paper highlights the role which organisational networks have on the career development of female managers.

Article type: Survey, Theoretical with application in practice.

Keywords: Women, International business, Networking.

Content Indicators: Research Implications** Practice Implications** Originality** Readability***

The Journal of Management Development
Volume 20 Number 10 2001 pp. 823-829
Copyright MCB University Press ISSN 0262-1711


According to Smith and Hutchinson (1995), there is not much empirical research literature available on interpersonal organisational networks. Extant research studies, however, indicate that one of the most frequently reported problems experienced by both women and racial minorities is the limited access to or exclusion from informal interaction networks. Women have been largely excluded from "old boy" networks which traditionally are composed of individuals who hold power in the organisation (Linehan, 2000; Fagenson, 1986; Henning and Jardim, 1977). Scase and Goffee's (1989) research established that attempts by male managers to exclude females from joining "old boy" networks merely reinforces existing stereotypes of negative male attitudes towards female managers. Davidson and Cooper (1992) also suggested that certain established traditional male institutions have developed exclusively male customs and traditions, which perpetuate the old boy network and safeguard it from female intrusion. Burke and McKeen (1994) observed that managerial women are still less integrated with important organisational networks, and it is these internal networks that influence critical human resource decisions such as promotion and acceptance.

According to O'Leary and Ickovics (1992), networking is essential for success in any professional career. Networks usually involve contacts with a variety of colleagues for the purpose of mutual work benefits. Research by Henning and Jardim (1977) also supports the importance of networking, and they add that an important characteristic of networking and the "old boy system" is that it is dependent on informal interactions involving favours, persuasion, and connections to people who already have influence. Parker and Fagenson (1994) advised that it is important for women to penetrate male networks to a greater extent if they wish to become sufficiently visible to win organisational promotions.

Ibarra's (1992) research investigated differences in men's and women's access to informal networks at work. Some of the findings of the study were that men had greater centrality and better relationships with the same sex, in their network relationships, than women. Men were more likely than women with the same education and experience to gain access to the networks of their mentors and to be drawn into key political groups. Alternatively, women found themselves between two networks: a women's network which provided social support and a male-dominated network which provided assistance in attainment of workplace effectiveness. Ibarra suggested that these two groups often subject women to the stress of conflicting advice, forcing them to maintain a delicate balance between the two, because one network may reject them because of their commitment to the other.

This paper examines the role played by organisational networks from the female manager's perspective and highlights the benefits of being part of organisational networks for the career development of female managers.


A total of 50 senior female managers were selected for inclusion in this study. Two sources were used for targeting interviewees, the first was a listing of Fortune 500 top companies in England, Belgium, France and Germany, and, second, The Marketing Guide to Ireland. The 50 managers who participated in the study were representative of a broad range of industries and service sectors including: mining, software engineering, pharmaceutical manufacturing, financial services, car manufacturing, tourism, oil refining, medical and state-owned enterprises.

A total of 25 interviewees were based in Ireland, 13 in Belgium, nine in England and three in Germany. While the dataset is drawn from Europe and assembles an exclusively senior sample of women managers, half of the participants (25/50) are based in Ireland (though not all of Irish nationality), a factor which needs to be taken into account in considering the generalisability of the results. All interviews were conducted face-to-face using a semi-structured interview format to ensure that the interviews covered the same main questions, but allowed participants to respond in a variety of ways and raise issues which were pertinent to the research.

Exclusion of female managers from organisational networks

Previous research studies of networking in domestic organisations have indicated that in many organisations the concept of networks is understood to mean a male club or an "old boy network" model (Davidson and Cooper, 1992; Ibarra, 1992). The findings from the current study indicate that, throughout Europe, the "old boy network" is still strong in most organisations, and particularly in established industries, such as medicine, accountancy and law. Research conducted in Denmark, by Albertsen and Christensen (1993, p. 76), also found that there are many established networks, clubs and groups both inside and outside companies in Denmark "in which women are not even allowed to participate".

All of the interviewees in the current research were aware of "old boy networks" in their organisations and the difficulties associated with breaking into these. The managers spoke of the "male bonding" which took place after work hours, during sporting events, and in clubs and bars which they felt excluded from. The interviewees believed that because they were in a minority group, they felt isolated by male colleagues. The participants also suggested that the exclusion of females from male managerial groups perpetuated the more exclusively male customs, traditions and negative attitudes towards female managers. The detrimental effects of these covert barriers included blocked promotion and blocked career development, discrimination, occupational stress, and lower salaries. Of the 50 interviewees, 43 believed that there is a lack of networking for women in senior management. These managers perceived that quite an amount of business is discussed and useful contacts are made when male managers network informally but, as women, they are excluded access to these informal situations:

I have found that there is a lot of networking for men, and it seems peculiar to me that a lot of business is done informally. I came to Ireland after working in the United States for 11 years, so I am not shy, but, there is the old boy network that women are excluded from (Senior Research and Development Engineer, Computer Company).

Many of the male network "systems" are not officially through network associations, but are through rugby clubs, football clubs, golf clubs and so forth. It is like a natural ready-made contact system that exists, but that women don't have as much ready access to. So, I think women have to try harder and have to take individual responsibilities for their own careers. In general, the networking opportunities for women are not as extensive as for men (Manager, Tourism Promotion Agency).

The interviewees believed that, given the absence of family and friends while abroad, the benefits provided by formal and informal networking in international management are of greater value than the benefits provided in domestic management. Some of the benefits of networking, as outlined by the interviewees, include: formal and informal information exchange regarding home and host organisations, career planning, professional support and encouragement, greater visibility with senior management, and career and personal development. Despite these benefits, however, the interviewees believe that women are further disadvantaged from networking, as gaining access to male-dominated networks is still the most significant barrier.

The interviewees believed that networking is particularly important for women who may not have had the benefit of mentors in their careers. According to Burke and McKeen (1994), studies on both networking and mentoring suggest some similarities. Both mentors and peer relationships can facilitate career and personal development. Networking can be useful at all stages in career development, while mentors are particularly useful at the early stages of career development. Peer relationships, developed through networks, are different from mentoring relationships in that they often last longer, are not hierarchical, and involve a two-way helping.

The interviewees observed that male managers in their organisations spent more time networking after work hours than female managers. The managers believed that this was possible for their male colleagues as they did not have the additional responsibilities of home and family to cater for. They believed that women managers are further disadvantaged from networking as they have far less time to network than their male colleagues:

There is a lack of networking for women in senior management, but maybe we are not like men in looking for things like the old boy network. I wouldn't be interested in that, I wouldn't have the time for it. I just want to go home and do what I have to do. For example, last night I wasn't home until 8.00 p.m. and the home was unhappy because mammy was late coming home. I have three children, one ten, one eight and I have a small baby who is two, and when I come home the two-year-old's face just lights up. He does this for his daddy, too, but obviously his world is not complete until his mammy comes home. So I wouldn't have a lot of time for networking (Chief Accountant, Computer Company).

To be quite honest, I think women have less time than men for networking. Networking has to take place to a great extent after work and on top of your job. If you are a woman with a family, you have less time. Men have more time for networking. Working women are very busy (Human Resources Manager, Computer Company).

Despite the shortage of time available to female managers for networking, however, 43 managers suggested that if there was a professional networking organisation available for female managers they would ensure that their schedules permitted joining such an organisation.

Female organisational networks

Powell (1993) suggested that women's lack of advancement to high levels of management often results from their having less fully-developed informal networks than men. In 1984, the first international association of women in management was founded with the creation of the European Women's Management Development Network (EWMD), with its headquarters in Brussels. While primarily European in orientation and membership, the EWMD maintains informal ties with leading figures in management organisations world-wide The EWMD, in turn, served as a catalyst for the establishment of networks for women in management in countries where they had not previously existed. By providing opportunities for women in management to share information, views and experiences, the EWMD encourages experimentation with new approaches tried in other countries. In this way, EWMD helps to deconstruct myths about "impossible" ideas or "natural" ways of doing things. Membership is open to men and women who share a commitment to three key objectives:

(1) to promote and develop further the knowledge and performance of women in management;
(2) to encourage women to move into powerful positions in the workplace and the community;
(3) to work towards a more evenly balanced mix of men and women in senior management roles and thereby help to improve the quality of management internationally.

Five of the managers in the current study were members of networking groups for female managers within their own companies. These interviewees believed that female networking groups were established in their companies because of the dominant "old boy network", and the benefits that were seen to be derived from networking:

Our organisation is very good and organises a structure for women to network and it provides a lot of money for this and the network works well. I have worked for the company for 12 years and I have a huge network of people, not just women, but men as well. The only way you achieve and get on is to have that network. The key is to try to nudge into networking and get a piece of the action (International Assignment and Repatriation Manager, Telecommunications Company).

One interviewee was responsible for setting up a female networking group in her organisation:

We are a female organisation and our purpose is to share our experiences with other females to help them overcome obstacles. It has nothing to do with male bashing, it is not a coffee morning, it is not a bunch of hens. These are the types of things you hear, "Ah, it's hen time". I am not even offended by that type of comment any more, because I know there is a level of fear and it is that negative type of male attitude which produces those type of comments (European Technical Support Manager, Computer Company).

Research by Ledvinka and Scarpello (1991), however, noted that women may be as adept as men in forming networks, but their networks are less effective because they are not as well integrated in organisations. Davidson and Cooper (1992) also suggested that, although networking with female contemporaries is a useful support system, until more women gain senior positions in management, women will have to learn how to successfully break into the male-dominated networking system, particularly at senior levels. The interviewees in the current study also suggested that, although it is beneficial for female managers to network in these newer groups, there are still more benefits to be gained from networking in the established male-dominated groups, as power in organisations is still predominantly held by men.

Four of the interviewees in the current study disagreed with networks which catered exclusively for females:

In Belgium we have clubs where only women are present, and that is something that I do not agree with because it does not reflect the reality of society (Bank Manager).

I am very wary about setting up women's groups, because straight away we are isolating ourselves. We are always saying that we want to be treated equally and we want to work equally with males and females. So, I am very, very wary of women-only groups (Human Resources Manager, Computer Company).

These four managers believed that it is not necessary to restrict membership of these networks to females only, and that the female managers should actively encourage male managers to join. The research findings also suggest that if female networks become stronger and begin to have more power, then perhaps more females will reach senior management positions and, in turn, partake in international management.

Agenda for future research

Arising from discussions with the 50 participants, and from previous research, specific barriers which prevent female managers from partaking in international careers include lack of networking opportunities, lack of mentors, and lack of female role models. These three areas merit further investigation.

As discussed above, very little empirical research has been conducted on networks. Future research might investigate the similarities and differences of male networks, female networks and mixed gender networks. The research might also examine the entry barriers to these networks, and report on the personal and career benefits these groups provide. Future research might also usefully investigate the likelihood of more successful international careers for female managers who are members of influential networks.

With regard to mentoring, for example, further research could investigate the impact mentors in home organisations have on the career successes of female international managers. The extent of the use of mentoring in organisations outside the USA, and the advantages and disadvantages of same-gender and cross-gender mentoring might also be assessed.

As discussed, the interviewees believed that, because of the relative scarcity of female international managers, they were more visible and isolated than their male colleagues. The majority of interviewees in this study were the first female senior managers to represent their organisations internationally. The managers believed that if there had been previous female managers, they would have learned and benefited from their experiences. Future research might also investigate the benefits that role models are deemed to provide in the career development of female managers.


All of the interviewees agree with Davidson and Cooper's (1992) research which suggested that it is up to organisational policy makers to take active steps to break down "male organisational cultures" which perpetuate the "old boy ghetto" syndrome. The interviewees further suggested that female managers can miss out on international appointments because they lack access to appropriate networks, or mentors, or role models - all of which are commonly available to their male counterparts. The research findings also indicate that the exclusion of female managers from business and social networks compounds their isolation which, in turn, may prevent female managers from building up useful networking relationships which would be advantageous to their international careers.

The interviewees suggested that men, being the dominant group, may want to maintain their dominance by excluding women from informal interactions. They also suggested that exclusively male networks may be responsible for developing and nurturing negative attitudes and prejudices towards female managers. Since males still hold the power in the majority of organisations, the participants believed that if they could gain access to these men's groups that many benefits should result; in particular, visibility and access to informal discussions with senior management. Of the interviewees, 46 perceived that there are more benefits to be gained for career progression if they can penetrate male networking groups. Given the difficulties outlined in gaining access to "the men's club", these participants perceived that benefits, such as psychological support, camaraderie and general sociability, could result from networking with females or in a mixed gender group. These interviewees believed that if females had more access to networking groups they could be socialised in both the formal and informal norms of the organisation and gain advantages from these. Finally, the findings also indicate that negative attitudes towards female managers breaking into male networks were found to vary by industry, with a more hostile corporate climate prevailing in established industries.


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