Women Entrepreneurs Face Challenges in Networking

Gender bias is often an obstacle to third-party connections.

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In networking, it’s often the case that the person who can help you is a friend of a friend.

But securing that third-party relationship can be complicated for women, especially if they are in a field that has been traditionally occupied by men.

In a recent paper, assistant professor Mabel Abraham investigates the role gender plays in how entrepreneurs make those crucial connections.

“One of the key predictors in the success of an entrepreneur is the strength of their personal networks,” Abraham says. “From funding to valuable tacit knowledge, entrepreneurs gain many important resources through their connections.”

In her paper, “Gender-role Incongruity and Audience-based Gender Bias: An Examination of Networking Among Entrepreneurs,” forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly, Abraham uses data from a network of entrepreneurs to demonstrate that decision-makers prefer male contacts when making third-party referrals to contacts in sectors dominated by men. The research also shows that this bias is not evident when making referrals to contacts in occupations which are traditionally gender neutral or associated with women.

Abraham’s interest in examining the effect of gender bias on networking stems from a critique of accepted ideas in the field of networking research.

“The dominant argument is that if women don’t benefit from connections, it’s because they’re in ‘bad networks’ that don’t provide as much value as the typical men’s networks,” Abraham says. “This line of argument implies that if women were in ‘better networks,’ there wouldn’t be any gender differences in the benefits they could access.”

On the surface, this seems logical. “Given we often find women are getting less value from their networks,” Abraham says, “and that they tend to be in different networks than men, it is reasonable to deduce that their inability to extract the same benefits is because they are in worse networks.” Yet, she had her doubts about whether this was the full story.

“We know that gender inequities happen all the time — men and women in the same job experience differences in outcomes,” Abraham says. “So why would we think that putting women in the same networks as men would lead to equal outcomes?”

To test her theory, Abraham used information gathered from RefClubs (a pseudonym), an organization and forum for entrepreneurs seeking to expand their ventures by sharing information about new clients. From 2007 to 2013, she collected data on networking exchanges involving 2,310 members in 37 network groups.

RefClubs proved to be a fruitful setting, as Abraham could compare the benefits men and women receive within the same network.

Abraham then differentiated those exchanges into two categories. The first, dyadic exchanges, take place between two people who are members of the same network group. The second were third-party, or triadic exchanges, where a group member connected a fellow group member to a contact outside of the group—these are the “friend of a friend” type connections.

Abraham notes that since dyadic exchanges only involve the two group members, deciding to make an exchange does not require any consideration about other people. “That gave me the opportunity to look at personal biases,” Abraham says. “If a male is willing to share with a female in the same way he would share with a male counterpart, that suggests he is not biased, or at least not exhibiting bias.”

In a triadic exchange, that relationship is more complex, Abraham argues, as people start to think about possible biases that others in their network might have before deciding whether to make these exchanges.

“It’s not just about what you believe in these cases,” Abraham says. “You are more apt to consider the likely expectations, preferences, and gender beliefs of this third person.”

While she did not find any evidence of bias in dyadic exchanges, she found that women in traditionally male-dominated careers, such as software engineering or contracting, were disadvantaged in triadic exchanges.

“Everybody knows that it’s not as common for women to be contractors,” Abraham says. “The assumption is that an outside contact is going to find it jarring to be connected to a female contractor. As a result, people are less likely to make these exchanges for women in masculine fields.”

Abraham says her research indicates two low-cost ways to redress this audience-based bias.

First, Abraham says her paper, as well as her research in general, hints at ways women entrepreneurs can better negotiate inequality and bias. She suggests that women, particularly those in male-typed fields, identify contacts that could be most helpful to them and strive to develop those relationships directly, rather than rely on their current network to make those connections happen. Abraham acknowledges that this is a frustrating solution as it requires extra time and effort from women. “But we have to operate in the current social structure, so this is something women can act on immediately,” Abraham says, “since there is no quick way to fix these biases.”

Abraham says it is also everyone’s responsibility to raise awareness and push back on the common assumptions that we make when deciding whether to connect female contacts to others. “We all need to question the assumption that other people prefer or expect a man in certain fields,” Abraham says. “That might mean simply gathering more information about the actual preferences of others. This will help us to overcome some portion of this disadvantage facing women.”

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