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Studies have shown that women’s professional networks are often less powerful and effective than men’s in terms of exchanged benefits, yet the motivations that underlie the networking behaviours remain less well understood. Based on an interview study of 37 high-profile female leaders working in large German corporations, we found that not only the extrinsic barrier of structural exclusion from powerful networks, but also the intrinsic barrier of women’s hesitations to instrumentalize social ties are key to answering our research question: Why do women build less effective networks than men? Our analysis points to the existence of structural exclusion resulting from work-family conflict and homophily. With regard to personal hesitation, we identified two elements that were associated with under-benefiting from networking: moral considerations in social interactions and gendered modesty. Our study makes two important contributions. First, by highlighting personal hesitation as an intrinsic barrier, it extends the understanding of women’s motivations for networking based on social exchange theory (SET). Second, based on structural barriers and personal hesitation, it develops a grounded theory model of networking that offers a holistic understanding of reasons that, from the perspective of the focal women, contribute to gender inequality in the workplace.
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DOI: 10.1177/0018726718804303
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human relations
Why women build less effective
networks than men: The role of
structural exclusion and personal
hesitation
Elena Greguletz
EBS Business School, Oestrich-Winkel, Germany
Marjo-Riitta Diehl
EBS Business School, Oestrich-Winkel, Germany
Karin Kreutzer
EBS Business School, Oestrich-Winkel, Germany
Abstract
Studies have shown that women’s professional networks are often less powerful and
effective than men’s in terms of exchanged benefits, yet the motivations that underlie
the networking behaviours remain less well understood. Based on an interview study
of 37 high-profile female leaders working in large German corporations, we found
that not only the extrinsic barrier of structural exclusion from powerful networks,
but also the intrinsic barrier of women’s hesitations to instrumentalize social ties are
key to answering our research question: Why do women build less effective networks
than men? Our analysis points to the existence of structural exclusion resulting from
work–family conflict and homophily. With regard to personal hesitation, we identified
two elements that were associated with under-benefiting from networking: moral
considerations in social interactions and gendered modesty. Our study makes two
important contributions. First, by highlighting personal hesitation as an intrinsic barrier,
it extends the understanding of women’s motivations for networking based on social
exchange theory. Second, based on structural barriers and personal hesitation, it
develops a grounded theory model of networking that offers a holistic understanding of
Corresponding author:
Marjo-Riitta Diehl, EBS Business School, Oestrich-Winkel 65375, Germany.
Email: marjo-riitta.diehl@ebs.edu
804303HUM0010.1177/0018726718804303Human RelationsGreguletz et al.
research-article2018
2 Human Relations 00(0)
reasons that, from the perspective of the focal women, contribute to gender inequality
in the workplace.
Keywords
career development, gender, networking, reciprocity, social exchange theory
Introduction
Studies show that engaging in networking is crucial for career success (e.g. Forret and
Dougherty, 2001, 2004; Wolff and Moser, 2009), as it facilitates access to critical
career-building resources such as advice, technical knowledge, strategic insight or
emotional support (Casciaro et al., 2014; Whiting and de Janasz, 2004). However, the
literature has identified gender differences in the size and quality of professional net-
working (Hanson, 2000; Moore, 1990; Renzulli et al., 2000; Rothstein et al., 2001),
which is defined as ‘individuals’ attempts to develop and maintain relationships with
others who have the potential to assist them in their work or career’ (Forret and
Dougherty, 2004: 420). Based on this structural view of networking, there is evidence
that networking offers less utility for women. For example, Forret and Dougherty
(2004: 431) found that ‘involvement in networking behavior was more beneficial for
the career progress of males than of females’. They go on to argue that women build
less effective networks than men with less influential and powerful contacts, and sug-
gest that such ineffectiveness is primarily attributable to women being at a structural
disadvantage (Forret and Dougherty, 2004). However, thus far, an in-depth under-
standing of how and why women are less comfortable with strategically building and
leveraging networks is lacking.
This study on women’s networks draws on social exchange theory (SET), which
describes social interaction as a process of reciprocal exchange occurring between par-
ties (Homans, 1961) and which provides a basis for studying networking (Brass et al.,
2004; Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005). SET is commonly viewed as one of the most
influential conceptual frameworks for understanding behaviour in organizational con-
texts (Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005). Based on classical writings on SET (Blau, 1964;
Homans, 1961), most scholars conceptualize exchange relationships based on a subjec-
tive cost–benefit analysis and based on the comparison of alternative means to achieve a
maximization of personal benefit (Goebel et al., 2013). Seminal works on reciprocity
(Gouldner, 1960; Westermarck, 1908) also highlight the moral nature of reciprocal obli-
gations whereby over-benefiting is socially undesirable (Uehara, 1995). In keeping with
these writings, scholars have argued that ‘reciprocity has developed in humans as a moral
norm that transcends egoistic motivation’ (Deckop et al., 2003: 103). Irrespective of
whether the motive to engage in a social exchange relationship is driven by instrumental
and moral concerns, the norm of reciprocity obliges individuals to strive for a balance,
even when the benefits exchanged are intangible or not explicitly agreed upon or when
there is a time lag between receiving and giving (Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005; Goebel
et al., 2013). In so doing, SET leads us to consider the motivations that underlie the
Greguletz et al. 3
networking behaviours of certain focal actors, women, that remain less well understood
in the literature on networking (Ahuja et al., 2012; Kuwabara et al., 2018).
While networking can thus be conceptualized as the balance of reciprocal giving and
receiving, existing research indicates that gender affects network behaviours and net-
work patterns in specific ways, thereby also influencing the effectiveness of networking.
Women’s networks are argued to be of a more social nature compared to those of men
(Brass, 1985; Ibarra, 1992; Vinnicombe and Colwill, 1996), and women have been
shown to benefit from fewer but stronger connections than men, who in turn gain an
advantage from so-called weak ties with a large number of acquaintances (Burt, 1992;
Seibert et al., 2001). The literature on negotiation suggests that women underestimate
their worth in discussions on salary and promotions (Barron, 2003; Kulik and Olekalns,
2012) – that is, they appear to doubt the potential value of their contributions or it runs
against gender roles to behave with self-advocacy. From these notions of gender-specific
differences in networking structures and related behaviours, we examine the following
research question: Why do women build less effective networks than men? We specifi-
cally build on SET and the norm of reciprocity with the aim of understanding the motiva-
tions and reasons that underlie women’s networking behaviours.
The results of our interview study of 37 high-profile female leaders in Germany reveal
two complementary dimensions that help explain the ineffectiveness of women’s net-
works. The first dimension confirms that structural exclusion arising from work–family
conflict and homophily acts as a barrier to women’s effective networking, especially in
terms of accessing networks. Extending previous literature, the second dimension con-
cerns women’s personal hesitation to instrumentalize their social ties, eventually result-
ing in lower levels of network effectivity. Such intrinsic hesitation builds on two main
drivers: relational morality, denoting women’s tendencies to avoid over-benefiting
through networking, and gendered modesty, denoting how women underestimate their
own value in professional contexts.
Our findings illustrate the value of SET and specifically the concept of reciprocity in
understanding women’s motivations and levels of willingness to engage in networking,
thereby providing a more nuanced understanding of why women’s networking efforts
have been found to be less effective than those of their male counterparts. In so doing,
we make two important contributions to the existing literature. First, in addition to con-
firming the existence of structural barriers known to hinder women’s networking behav-
iours, we identify women’s personal hesitation in terms of their relational morality and
gendered modesty as a complementary explanation. Consequently, we advance the
understanding of the motivational reasons underlying women’s comparably lower
degrees of success in networking in line with SET. Second, we relate these two explana-
tions – structural barriers and personal hesitation – in a grounded theory model to offer a
holistic understanding of the dynamics that hinder the realization of gender equality in
the workplace from the perspectives of women.
In the following sections, we start with a brief introduction of SET and the norm of
reciprocity, and we then move on to discuss networking behaviours from a gender per-
spective. This is followed by a description of our methodology and findings. We con-
clude by discussing the theoretical and practical implications of our work.
4 Human Relations 00(0)
Theoretical background
Social exchange theory and the concept of reciprocity as theoretical
fundamentals of networking
Social networking is essentially based on reciprocal giving and taking, and hence can be
described through the lens of SET (Brass et al., 2004; Westphal and Milton, 2000). Social
exchanges differ in important ways from strictly economic exchanges. The most crucial
distinction lies in the fact that social exchanges entail adhering to unspecific obligations,
whereas economic transactions are typically agreed upon contractually (Blau, 1964). In
perpetuating the ongoing fulfilment of obligations and strengthening indebtedness, the
norm of reciprocity plays an important role in the development of social exchange rela-
tionships (Blau, 1964; Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005).
Essentially, the norm of reciprocity forms the basis for the development of trust.
According to Gouldner (1960), when one party offers a benefit, an obligation is created,
and the recipient is indebted to the donor (i.e. to the person who contributes a benefit or
a gift to the exchange relationship) until he/she repays the benefit. The norm of reciproc-
ity thus helps to ensure that individuals who provide favourable treatment to others will
eventually be repaid, even if the timing and form of the repayment are not clear. Similarly,
those who have received a benefit must be willing to remain indebted until a suitable
occasion for repayment emerges. In contrast, a failure to reciprocate a favour, or even
reciprocation that is too hastily given, are normally interpreted as a lack of appreciation,
and may break social bonds and result in some form of social punishment (Blau, 1964;
Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005).
In accordance with classical writings on SET (Blau, 1964; Homans, 1961), subjective
cost–benefit analyses and the maximization of personal benefit are powerful drivers of
reciprocity. In other words, they point to the calculating, instrumental nature of reciproc-
ity (Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005; Goebel et al., 2013). Hence, behaviour in exchange
relationships can be predicted by applying the following formula: rewards expected from
social exchanges minus costs expected from social exchanges. When the resulting differ-
ence is positive, further interaction is encouraged. Such rationally calculated, egoistic
forms of benefit maximization form the essence of the prominent utilitarian perspective
on social exchange relationships (e.g. networking) held by management scholars (Goebel
et al., 2013), also in the context of network studies.
In contrast to the utilitarian perspective, a moral approach to reciprocal relations is not
focused on benefit maximization but rather on internalized moral obligations (Goebel
et al., 2013). Thus, individuals live up to their obligations to return a favour, not only
because they wish to continue receiving benefits but also because they feel morally
obliged to do so (Deckop et al., 2003). Furthermore, individuals are typically ‘more psy-
chologically and emotionally averse to over-benefiting than under-benefiting from social
support interactions’ (Uehara, 1995: 483). To avoid becoming ‘over-benefiters’, people
may even be willing to accept lesser rewards than they could expect based on their con-
tributions. In networking contexts, receiving information concerning a promotion oppor-
tunity is likely to create a moral obligation to return the favour at some unspecified point
of time without instrumental concerns about further exchanges.
Greguletz et al. 5
Equity theory offers a complementary perspective on social exchange relationships
such as those of networking (Uehara, 1995). From this perspective, individuals consider
fairness when interacting with others – an idea that goes back to Adams (1963). Such
social interactions aim at achieving an equilibrium of value gained between parties in the
long run with neither party over- or under-benefiting at the other person’s expense
(Walster et al., 1978). This balanced view of social exchange thus presents a compromise
between extremes of purely egoistic motives and moral considerations observed when
engaging in social interactions. Such an equity-driven notion of exchange that combines
beneficial reciprocity with moral considerations has emerged as a common means of
explaining social exchange behaviour (Uehara, 1995).
Although the norm of reciprocity may be a universally accepted principle (Gouldner,
1960), the degree to which individuals apply principles of reciprocity varies depending
on the traits and characteristics of individuals concerned (Cropanzano and Mitchell,
2005). Researchers have, for example, observed different reciprocity (Eisenberger et al.,
2004) and exchange orientations (Murstein et al., 1977) that influence the extent to which
individuals engage in reciprocity and care to maintain a sense of balance in their exchange
relationships. Seminal SET works acknowledge that similarity between exchange part-
ners in terms of gender, nationality, age, and so forth, facilities reciprocation (Blau, 1964;
Homans, 1958). In research on networking, the effects of this tendency to bond with
similar ones – a concept called homophily – have been studied extensively (Brass et al.,
2004). Homosocial reproduction processes suggest that leaders (mainly men) recruit,
promote and prefer to work with individuals who are similar to themselves (other men)
(Ibarra, 1992; Joecks et al., 2013; Joshi et al., 2011), rendering it challenging for women
to enter networks. However, beyond such stable traits and observable characteristics and
associated structural challenges, our understanding of what motivates or constrains indi-
viduals – the networkers – in their engagement in networking remains limited (Ahuja
et al., 2012; Kuwabara et al., 2018).
Networking and career success
Engaging in networking activities by developing and maintaining social bonds with indi-
viduals potentially providing career assistance serves as an important means of enhanc-
ing professional careers (e.g. Burt, 1992; Cross and Thomas, 2011; Forret and Dougherty,
2001, 2004; Wolff and Moser, 2009). Studies show that networking behaviour (when
effective) facilitates access to critical career-building resources such as advice, technical
knowledge, strategic insight and emotional support (Casciaro et al., 2014; Whiting and
de Janasz, 2004). Forret and Dougherty (2004) identified five forms of networking
behaviour, namely maintaining external contacts, socializing, engaging in professional
activities, participating in community activities, and enhancing internal visibility.
Further, they showed that enhancing one’s internal visibility through, for example,
engagement in highly visible assignments and engagement in professional activities
through the execution of public appearances and speeches have a significantly positive
effect on career success (Forret and Dougherty, 2004). The results of Shipilov et al.
(2007: 1–2) also reveal a favourable link between professional networking activities and
career advancement: ‘Greater use of network building behaviours’ results in greater
6 Human Relations 00(0)
social capital in terms of ‘having a larger, more diverse, more externally oriented social
network … which leads to faster promotion’. The authors differentiate between organ-
ized, structured networking (e.g. joining formal clubs) and informal, unstructured net-
working; interestingly, only the latter is found to be significantly related to the retrieval
of a broader range of social capital and to accelerated promotion (Shipilov et al., 2007).
Despite the benefits of networking for career success, some individuals regularly
refuse to proactively and purposefully engage in networking activities – a phenomenon
that Kuwabara et al. (2018: 50) have recently coined the ‘knowing-doing gap in network-
ing’ in their theoretical work on networking. Conflicting feelings and negative attitudes
towards networking can be rooted in utility and morality concerns (Piskorski, 2014).
Even when individuals recognize the utility of networking, doubts regarding its moral
propriety can lead them to oppose an instrumental networking approach (Kuwabara
et al., 2018), perhaps to avoid experiencing a feeling of ‘moral dirtiness’ (Casciaro et al.,
2014). Viewing networking as a means of ‘using others to get ahead’ or of ‘befriending
not for true friendship but for ulterior reasons’ may cause the behaviour to appear unfair
or insincere (Kuwabara et al., 2018: 53).
Women’s professional networks
As noted above, numerous studies have found that networking benefits women’s careers
less than men’s careers (Forret and Dougherty, 2004; Ibarra, 1997; Rothstein et al.,
2001). A significant body of literature confirms the existence of gender differences in
structural characteristics of networks and in their links to instrumental benefits for career
advancement. Ibarra (1997) argues that weak network ties among diverse social groups
and managerial hierarchies are advantageous with regard to their ‘instrumental worth’ in
delivering access to diverse career-enhancing resources. Women, however, tend to prefer
maintaining strong ties and a sense of emotional intensity in their relationships (Ibarra,
1997). Hanson’s (2000) research also shows that men’s and women’s networks have dif-
ferent structural characteristics: women’s networks tend to be smaller, more localized,
and community-minded, whereas men’s networks tend to be larger and more economi-
cally focused. Consequently, men’s networks can be characterized as more utilitarian or
instrumental, whereas women’s networks are more socially oriented (Brass, 1985; Ibarra,
1992; Vinnicombe and Colwill, 1996).
As a result, women tend to remain excluded from powerful, informal networks (Ibarra
et al., 2010; McGuire, 2002; Morrison and Von Glinow, 1990; O’Leary and Ickovics,
1992), which places them at a disadvantage, for instance, in terms of forming alliances
and developing access to critical organizational knowledge (Ibarra, 1993). Wellington
et al. (2003) further showed that exclusion from powerful networks and limited levels of
visibility constitute central barriers to women’s career advancement. Scott (1996) found
that even when men and women have the same profiles (job title, work history, age etc.),
women are less likely to interact with top-level colleagues. Rather, they are more likely
to build ties with women of similar hierarchical levels. Hence, women and men regularly
belong to distinct organizational networks; women tend to interact with and seek support
from network partners who can be characterized as of a ‘lower level of status and power’
(Rothstein et al., 2001: 4). Consequently, women form less effective developmental
Greguletz et al. 7
relationships with powerful mentors (Ragins and Cotton, 1991) who could play a crucial
role in their career advancement (e.g. Burke, 1984). Overall, men appear to benefit more
from informal connections such as mentorships, resulting in more frequent promotions
and pay raises (Lyness and Thompson, 2000).
In sum, research results show that men’s careers benefit more from social networks
than women’s, who often face exclusion from powerful social circles and who draw
fewer benefits from their existing networks. What we know less about is the specific
reasons why women have less success in networking. Therefore, we uncover and analyse
the barriers that women face in building effective networks and especially in relation to
reciprocal processes of giving and taking, which are central to networking.
Methods
Our inductive study followed the principles of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967)
and was informed by the ‘Gioia methodology’ (Gioia et al., 2013). The inductive develop-
ment of theory through the methodical collection and analysis of data is central to
grounded theory. The Gioia guide is ‘a systematic approach to new concept development’
(Gioia et al., 2013: 15) and hence serves as a rigorous means to follow an inductive
grounded theory approach. Central to the Gioia methodology is the development of a data
structure (Gioia et al., 2013), which we used to visualize our data analysis and to ensure
full transparency on the basis and development of this study’s results (see Figure 1).
Data collection
We interviewed 37 female leaders who were either on executive boards (14 interviewees)
or who occupied top leadership positions (14 interviewees) with large corporations in
Germany (almost 1/3 were from DAX and MDAX listed companies that represent the
largest publicly traded firms in terms of market capitalization levels). The remaining
interviewees (9) were successful entrepreneurs whose backgrounds involved noteworthy
positions in management. These interviewees were contacted through the university or
through our private networks or, in a secondary phase, via other interviewees’ networks
(i.e. snowball sampling). All of the interviewees held an academic degree and ranged in
age from 31 to 63, with an average of 46.5 years. Of the interviewees, 29 were married
or in established relationships and 25 had at least one child (17 interviewees had at least
one child who was a minor). On average, the interviewees had 1.3 children, with a con-
siderable range from zero to six children.
The interviews ranged in length from 45 to 90 minutes and were mainly conducted
through face-to-face meetings. Eight interviews were conducted by phone. Eight inter-
views, at the beginning of the interview process, were conducted by two authors. After
these joint interview experiences, which helped fine-tune the interview guide and flow of
questions, the remaining interviews were split between the two authors. Although the
presence of multiple interviewers allows for a follow-up discussion of interpretations,
more extensive note-taking, and the exchange of personal understanding, we acknowl-
edge that a single interviewer resulting in a one-on-one conversation may foster a more
intimate atmosphere. However, one of the interviewing authors is a young female leader
8 Human Relations 00(0)
First-order concepts
(exemplary)
Second-order
themes
Aggregated
dimensions
d Homophily
Structural
exclusion
Work
family
conflict
c
Relational
morality
a
Gendered
modesty
b
Personal
hesitation
Figure 1. Data coding tree.
(Continued)
Greguletz et al. 9
a
Women do not appreciate the instrumental, utilitarian character of networking activities: ‘I don’t really
like the utility definition of networks … It’s the exploitation aspect I don’t like’ (Interviewee 19); ‘I don’t
like the benefit–benefit definition, watching for contacts I could potentially benefit from’ (Interviewee
19); ‘Women look at networks from a social point of view … They do not ask the question “How does
it benefit me?’” (Interviewee 27).
Women stress the importance of likeability and the relationship-based, communal character of network-
ing activities (‘My networks are based on good collaboration and a very honest, authentic relationship’
(Interviewee 22); ‘Perhaps this is a very female style, but I don’t want to have a network with people I
don’t like’ (Interviewee 16); ‘[In men’s networks] it’s more a question of quantity than quality’ (Inter-
viewee 7); ‘I have a … network of people that I really know and that I like and who like me’ (Interview-
ee 8); ‘[I approach people] without the expectation that I want something from that person, but with
the intention to get to know that person’ (Interviewee 5); ‘I get to know people, there is a mutual liking
and empathy, and I’m not making the conversation a sales show from the very beginning … My network
of contacts is based on loyalty and trust in the first place’ (Interviewee 9)).
Women refuse to engage in networking activities for solely instrumental purposes: ‘I can’t see taking up
golf for networking purposes only … although I know that there is a lot of ‘wheeling and dealing’ going
on’ (Interviewee 16).
Women tend to connect with subordinates or peers: ‘I was always good at networking with my team
… I was bad at networking to foster the next step in my career path’ (Interviewee 16); ‘Every person
is interesting … I never cared about a person’s title, function or role’ (Interviewee 5); ‘Women focus
too much on homogeneous networks by connecting only with women on the same hierarchy level’
(Interviewee 21).
Women hesitate to ask for a one-sided favor or help – ‘I think what would be more typical for me and
for a lot of women: “I do it alone”, not asking for help’ (Interviewee 7) – and stress the importance of
their giving to networks: ‘I’m not just using networks, but I’m nurturing them and proactively providing
information to create a balance’ (Interviewee 21); ‘I’m regularly opening doors for my former colleagues’
(Interviewee 22); ‘Men are not used to giving, but to taking … Women, however, are able to give driven
by an altruistic nature’ (Interviewee 31); ‘Don’t aim to join networks for reaping benefits immediately,
but first to give’ (Interviewee 14).
b
Women excessively question themselves, their abilities, and their value for professional networks: ‘Time
and again I have self-doubts and think that I’m not fulfilling my tasks sufficiently. I’m always very critical
of myself’ (Interviewee 13); ‘Women ponder much longer whether they have the willingness and ability
to occupy a certain position. The degree of self-doubt is much higher among women than among men’
(Interviewee 20); ‘A stereotypical educational or cultural imprint gives women the feeling of having
less value to add to networks’ (Interviewee 21); ‘At a certain point I was massively questioning myself,
something that might be typical of females’ (Interviewee 22).
Women shy away from visible positions in networks: ‘Women don’t feel comfortable sitting on the
stage and … showing themselves there’ (Interviewee 8); ‘All the women that have a successful career …
need to become more visible’ (Interviewee 13).
Successful female leaders advise other women aspiring to a similar career to be more self-confident:
‘Don’t sell yourself short’ (Interviewee 30); ‘be visible’ (Interviewee 13, Interviewee 5, Interviewee 36);
‘market yourself’ (Interviewee 20, Interviewee 22); ‘don’t be too modest’ (Interviewee 4); ‘communicate
your aspirations’ (Interviewee 20); ‘dare to take the next step’ (Interviewee 36).
Women aspiring a leadership career need to understand that being too reserved inhibits their career
progress: ‘Beating your own drum is part of the business’ (Interviewee 22); ‘We women need to be
bolder. We need to stand up for a 50/50 chance’ (Interviewee 17); ‘People need to know that you are
ready to take the next step’ (Interviewee 36).
Qualified women are in high demand on the job market, which should serve as a source of self-confi-
dence: ‘Walk around with their heads held high and say ‘if you don’t want me or like me, I’ll go some-
where else’ … Now is the best time for a woman to get into a leadership position, hence we somehow
need to build their self-confidence to do so’ (Interviewee 17); ‘Our clients request mixed teams, they
Figure 1. (Continued)
(Continued)
10 Human Relations 00(0)
want a consulting service that is not limited [to a certain nationality or gender] … Many women don’t
believe in or recognize their great potential … the female USP’ (Interviewee 20).
c
Women with children face a time conflict: ‘I should really pay more attention to networking. Which
brings up a problem I know that I have compared to my male colleagues: time. Because I have two kids’
(Interviewee 2); ‘And that is indeed for me a disadvantage in this boys’ world. I don’t have the time to
do the network nurturing they do, as a matter of fact’ (Interviewee 2); ‘No, I didn’t have such networks.
If you are that busy with your job and have two children and a husband to boot, you have your hands
full’ (Interviewee 31); ‘Of course, I show my face at networking events, however, I don’t stay for long
because otherwise I can’t get up with my children early in the morning’ (Interviewee 11).
The work–family conflict is connected to career women in our society: ‘All the women that have a suc-
cessful career and are great mothers and bosses need to become more visible. With that visibility in the
media, in society [combining motherhood and a leadership career] would be perceived as more natural
and normal. Unfortunately, we are not at that point today’ (Interviewee 13).
Even already the anticipation of a work–family conflict makes women to shy away from continuing their
careers and with it from engaging into career networks: “‘Now I’m pregnant, now I think about a part-
time position.” Why? Why have you invested so much in your studies? … What a devastating message
is that?’ (Interviewee 4); ‘If women don’t communicate very clearly that they are willing to take up a
higher position, people will conclude … “She has a family and children, she doesn’t want to take further
responsibility’” (Interviewee 36).
d
Women feel unwelcome in and unsuitable to male-dominated networks: ‘The huge disadvantage in the
world where I am now is that I don’t fit in’ (Interviewee 2); ‘There were only men, aged between 35
and 45, all German, all with a doctoral degree in the leadership positions’ (Interviewee 16); ‘It’s people
who have been there for 25 years now, it’s absolutely a closed boys’ club’ (Interviewee 2); ‘The higher
one climbs in an organization, the more closed networks exist’ (Interviewee 22); ‘Women try to be
part of a group, try to be liked … and they might adopt behaviors that are not theirs’ (Interviewee 8);
‘There are male networks you have no chance to join as a woman. I’ve always left such battlefields’
(Interviewee 9); ‘I did not feel comfortable … in purely male groups because of conflicting beliefs and
ways to communicate’ (Interviewee 14); ‘I’m facing a conservative male business world where conver-
sations start with small talk around soccer, golf, etc. … I always had issues connecting to such men’s
topics’ (Interviewee 27).
Men mentor and promote ‘mini-mes’: ‘We have too many male colleagues who promote mirror-images
of themselves’ (Interviewee 5); ‘I prefer to fill a vacant seat with a clone’ (Interviewee 16).
Maintaining homogeneous male networks appears beneficial for men: ‘It is just more familiar, more com-
fortable, less irritating’ (Interviewee 23); ‘It’s not even meant badly to say we are friends, a buddy is much
more predictable … he is like me, he thinks the same way, he decides the same way’ (Interviewee 16).
Networking activities are based on typical male interests: ‘car races’ (Interviewee 4), ‘network of
motorcyclists’ (Interviewee 7), ‘table soccer’ (Interviewee 7), ‘go for a beer’ (Interviewee 11), ‘play golf’
(Interviewee 17), and ‘soccer matches’ (Interviewee 2).
Figure 1. (Continued)
with small children in the academic sphere (department head), and the other is a female
in her late 20s who is on a promising career track herself. We believe that these charac-
teristics helped our interviewees to connect with the interviewers and create an atmos-
phere in which interviewees openly shared their personal stories, including their
experiences of hardship and failure.
The interviews followed an interview guide (available online as supplementary mate-
rial) focused on seven pre-defined central themes: individual career paths and career
transitions; the family–work interface and potential conflicts; personality traits and
strengths/weaknesses; leadership styles and role conflicts for females; career networks
and gendered networking activities; societal pressures and role expectations placed on
Greguletz et al. 11
women; and future female leaders and ways to support them. These topics of interest
were chosen based on a literature review and through discussions between the authors.
Statements relevant to this article’s findings were generated from all of the interview
themes, with an emphasis on the fifth theme, devoted to the topic of networking.
Questions on this theme addressed the interviewees’ networks and the roles played by
them during their careers (e.g. ‘Do you actively seek to maintain and build your net-
works? How?’) as well as differences between female and male networks and resulting
issues (e.g. ‘How do your networks compare to those of your male colleagues?’).
However, we also used relevant statements relating to other themes to inductively
develop concepts to discuss in this article. For example, the theme ‘the family–work
interface and potential conflicts’ contributed to the definition of an external barrier, and
the theme ‘future female leaders and modes of support’ revealed a need for training on
self-marketing for women, and with this contributing to the definition of intrinsic barri-
ers of gendered modesty. Questions asked on each of the themes are given in the inter-
view guide (available online as supplementary material).
In general, we prepared open-ended questions as a starting point. The interviews were
not limited to our predefined questions and remained open to any individual issue raised
by an interviewee during the free flow of interview conversations. As a consequence of
this semi-standardized approach, the interviews were of a more informal and conversa-
tional nature. We particularly asked the participants to discuss concrete experiences and
examples of their networking behaviour. This storytelling approach to interviewing
allowed us to go beyond platitudes and commonplace information and to focus on expe-
rienced behaviours and their consequences. In every interview, we were open to discuss-
ing new and unexpected topics brought up by the interviewees.
With the exception of two women, all of the participants gave us permission to record
their interviews. For the two exceptions, extensive notes were taken. All of the inter-
views, most of which were held in German, were transcribed to allow for a detailed
analysis. The transcripts followed grammar and spelling conventions of standard written
German or, for the few non-German interviews, of American English. The interviewees’
and their organizations’ anonymity was safeguarded at all times; the confidentiality of
our research records was strictly maintained.
The interview process continued until it became clear that additional value in terms of
new emerging themes was negligible, that is, theoretical saturation (Glaser and Strauss,
1967) was reached. Overall, the data collection phase took place from mid-November
2015 to mid-April 2016. By the end of 2016 we contacted the interviewees by email with
the initial results of our study. We received an explicit confirmation of our results from
written responses given by four interviewees. The other candidates’ missing responses
are interpreted as ‘silent consent’. One interviewee participated in a face-to-face follow-
up session that involved an informal discussion of our research findings, with which she
closely identified.
Data analysis
The first step of our in-depth analysis of the transcribed interview data involved open
coding using NVivo, a qualitative data analysis program. For this study, statements on
12 Human Relations 00(0)
the role of career networks and personal networking activities were of central interest,
as were references to gendered networking experiences (positive or negative). The
interviews were not guided with the article’s central concepts in mind and were devel-
oped inductively from data patterns that emerged through the analysis. For this induc-
tive analysis, quotes drawn from the raw data that pointed to the above topics of
interest were marked with a simple descriptive phrase or an in-vivo code using the
interviewee’s language or a combination of both (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). These
codes are also referred to as ‘first-order concepts’ or ‘first-order codes’ (e.g. Gioia
et al., 2010).
This initial coding procedure was executed by the author who had conducted most
of the interviews; the other two authors acted as challengers. Interpretations of the data
were repeatedly discussed among the three authors, with a particular emphasis on the
coding of resulting themes and dimensions. Terminology used was then challenged by
academic colleagues through a friendly review and a workshop. The main coder dis-
cussed potential contradictions in the data with the other authors. For instance, one
interviewee considers herself to be a strong strategic networker who views the moral-
ity issue to be a more German than gendered trait. She is half American and is very
conscious about networking issues, as she has completed her diploma thesis in that
field. Owing to these special circumstances her experience was treated as an exception,
and the mentioned cultural influence is recognized as a limitation of our study.
Comparing the first-order codes and aggregating those related to one another (i.e. axial
coding according to Strauss and Corbin (1998)) led to the development of higher-level
second-order themes. Here, the NVivo program was used to monitor emerging con-
cepts and themes by facilitating a convenient reference to similar concepts represented
by the interviewees’ opinions and experiences and then to merge these into fewer
themes.
The first two themes of our coding structure, work–family conflict and homophily,
refer to how women are structurally excluded from powerful networks developed under
conditions of male dominance. In contrast to these extrinsic barriers, the second aggre-
gate dimension, personal hesitation, applies an intrinsic perspective based on themes of
relational morality and gendered modesty. During the analysis, themes were emergent in
nature. In other words, we allowed new themes to emerge or others to merge with any
additional data code identified at any stage. The process ended when a ‘clear sense of the
developing relationships among categories and their related themes’ was achieved (Gioia
et al., 2010: 8) and when analysing additional interview data did not reveal new relation-
ships. Only at this stage was relevant literature explicitly reviewed on emerging themes
and dimensions, as the Gioia methodology suggests that refraining from engaging in a
detailed a priori literature review helps prevent the emergence of a prior hypothesis bias
(confirmation bias). Figure 1 visualizes our coding tree as a ‘graphic representation of
how we progressed from raw data to terms and themes in conducting the analyses’ (Gioia
et al., 2013: 20).
Using the Gioia methodology to develop a data structure helped us develop an in-
depth understanding of female leaders’ network effectiveness levels from individuals
with relevant experience ‘to bring qualitative rigor’ to the conduct and presentation of
inductive research (Gioia et al., 2013: 15).
Greguletz et al. 13
The trustworthiness of the data collection and analysis method
With regard to data collection methods, Miles and Huberman (1994) list several condi-
tions in which qualitative data generated are ‘strong’ (i.e. using informal and intimate
settings and engaging with respondents through one-on-one interaction). Both of these
aspects were reflected in the settings of most of our interviews. Furthermore, Miles and
Huberman (1994: 263) point to an ‘elite bias’ that arises when data from certain inform-
ants are over-weighted. A priori, all transcripts and data were equally considered. All of
our interviewees are characterized by their highly relevant and impressive leadership
experiences (see Appendix 1: List of interviewees); hence, their perspectives proved
equally ‘valuable’ for our study. Rather than using a priori weighting, we looked for pat-
terns and regularities in the entire dataset. As criteria for identifying recurring patterns in
the data, we first sought multiple references to the same issue by different interviewees,
and we next considered the importance of stories and incidents described by the
interviewees.
The corroboration of findings across multiple informants is another important quality
criterion noted by Gioia et al. (2010: 8) used ‘to mitigate the possibility of problems
associated with retrospective accounts’. Furthermore, as mainly one author was placed
in charge of coding the raw data, the other two authors assumed critical ‘challenger roles’
to avoid exclusively relying on the interpretations of a single data analyst. In questioning
initial codes, discussing contradictions in the data, and jointly striving for the optimal
coding of data themes and final dimensions, the authors strove to meet Lincoln and
Guba’s (1985) criteria for trustworthy, qualitative research: credibility (i.e. confidence
that research results reveal the ‘truth’), confirmability (i.e. researcher neutrality) and
dependability (i.e. the consistency and repeatability of findings).
Once researchers arrive at their initial findings, member checks serve as ‘the most logi-
cal source of corroboration’ (Miles and Huberman, 1994: 275). We applied a two-pronged
approach to receiving feedback from our interviewees that involved sending emails with
our initial findings to the whole group of informants and via a face-to-face meeting with
one central informant at a later stage. Receiving feedback from interviewees a second
time addresses two of the four prerequisites for trustworthiness according to Lincoln and
Guba (1985): credibility and confirmability. In addition to the mentioned criteria, Lincoln
and Guba (1985) point to the transferability (i.e. the ability to apply findings to other con-
texts) of findings. Miles and Huberman (1994) also refer to this quality criterion as ‘exter-
nal validity’, which addresses the issue of to what extent findings can be transferred to
other settings. We address this requirement by describing the characteristics of our sample
and the data collection process in great detail and by providing a clear indication of the
respective interviewee that gave each quoted statement. We however admit that certain
specifics of our study sample (gender or nationality) could limit the transferability of the
findings (please refer to the section on limitations of the article).
Findings
In the following sections, we describe the two dimensions of structural exclusion relat-
ing primarily to access to networks and to personal hesitation directly influencing
14 Human Relations 00(0)
networking behaviour, and we present the corresponding four themes of work–family
conflict, homophily, relational morality and gendered modesty.
Structural exclusion as a cause of ineffective networking
Workfamily conflict. Our analysis confirms that an important factor causing structural
exclusion arises from the conflict that occurs between work and child-rearing household
responsibilities, which are still to a large extent assumed by mothers women (Kan et al.,
2011; Lyonette and Crompton, 2014). Networking events held in the evening or on the
weekend as well as more informal after-work get-togethers are at odds with family and
household obligations. This work–family work–household conflict in the context of pro-
fessional networking emerged as a central theme of the interviews. One executive board
member described time constraints imposed on her by her two children: ‘And that is indeed
for me a disadvantage in this boys’ world. I don’t have the time to do the network nurturing
they do, as a matter of fact’ (Interviewee 2). Another interviewee agreed, referring to her
earlier career in upper management: ‘I didn’t have such networks. If you are that busy with
your job and have two children and a husband to boot, you have your hands full’ (Interviewee
31). From the interviews, it became clear that for women with families the high demands
of a leadership career in terms of ‘official working hours’ are already extremely challeng-
ing to meet; however, this challenge intensifies significantly when the pressure to nurture
professional networks after hours comes into play. The interviews revealed the interesting
and alarming fact that the mere anticipation of a work–family conflict causes women to shy
away from continuing their careers and thus from engaging in career networks. According
to one interviewee’s experience with female colleagues in the banking sector, women with
children, in particular, need to ‘communicate very clearly that they are willing to take on a
higher position’ (Interviewee 36). When they fail to do so, people conclude that, owing to
her role as a mother, ‘she doesn’t want to take on more responsibility’ (Interviewee 36).
Homophily in professional networking. Our analysis points to homophily as a key reason
for why women face difficulties in accessing and engaging in effective networking. The
principle of homophily suggests that people prefer to interact with others whom they
perceive to be similar to themselves. Such homogeneity eases communication and
ensures the predictability of behaviour (Brass, 1985) and can thereby encourage reci-
procity (Brass et al., 2004; Westphal and Milton, 2000). In line with this reasoning, the
interviewees showed that they felt unwelcome in and unsuited to male-dominated power
networks, which has eventually caused them to perceive such networks as exclusive to
males: ‘The huge disadvantage in the world where I am now is that I don’t fit in’ (Inter-
viewee 2, executive board member of a DAX 30 company). Another former DAX 30
executive board member also stressed the homogeneous nature of power circles at exec-
utive levels: ‘There were only men aged between 35 and 45, all German, all with doc-
toral degrees, in leadership positions’ (Interviewee 16). Another factor that inhibits
diversity in such networks is rooted in the historical connectedness of the people belong-
ing to the inner circle: ‘It’s people who have been there for 25 years now … it’s abso-
lutely a closed boys’ club’ (Interviewee 2), one interviewee noted in reference to a DAX
30 company. Some interviewees even noted they experienced formal exclusion from
Greguletz et al. 15
male-dominated power networks; certain business clubs, for example, officially operate
as strictly ‘men-only organizations’.
However, our data show that it is not such ‘official discrimination’ that burdens the
careers of female leaders; rather, it involves the often more subtle signs of exclusion,
such as the alignment of network activities with stereotypically male interests. The head
of human resources of one large non-profit organization provided a good example by
recalling how her former boss had ‘placed a soccer table in the cafeteria … went there
regularly himself’ (Interviewee 7) and hence was in regular informal contact with other
men who also enjoyed playing table soccer. Other examples of homophily described
involved after-work beers among colleagues, convening in corporate boxes of soccer
stadiums, or golf outings held on weekends, which were gender-specific activities.
Among the women interviewed, homophily was also viewed as a means of discrimi-
nating against women in the context of mentorships and promotions: ‘We have too many
male colleagues who promote mirror images of themselves’ (Interviewee 5); with this
statement one top manager of a DAX 30 company drew attention to her experience with
men often mentoring and promoting ‘mini-mes’. One former DAX 30 executive made a
similar observation: For men, ‘a buddy is much more predictable’ because ‘he is like me,
he thinks the same way, and he makes decisions the same way’ (Interviewee 16). She
summarized her experience as follows: men ‘prefer to fill a vacant seat with a clone’
(Interviewee 16).
Personal hesitation as a cause of ineffective networking
The role of relational morality. Relational morality was identified as another central
theme of our analysis. In the interviews, female leaders expressed their discomfort with
engaging in professional-instrumental networking events: ‘I don’t really like the utility
definition of networks … It’s the exploitation aspect that I don’t like’ (Interviewee 19),
said one general manager from the tourism industry. Additionally, one DAX 30 execu-
tive board member had refused to engage in networking activities for solely instrumental
reasons: ‘I can’t see taking up golf for networking purposes only … even though I know
that there is a lot of “wheeling and dealing” going on’ (Interviewee 16). Another female
leader from the banking sector added that she did not enjoy participating in instrumental
networking driven by personal benefits and observed a difference from her male col-
leagues: ‘Maybe that’s a difference between men and women’ (Interviewee 22), she
noted. With regard to her own networks, she stressed that they were based on ‘strong
collaboration’ and ‘honest and authentic relationships’ (Interviewee 22). Other inter-
viewees suggested that men tend to be more driven by egoistic, instrumental motives
behind networking, and while placing less emphasis on personal relationships or likea-
bility in regard to professional contacts. For instance, one leader from the nonprofit sec-
tor described her networking style as follows: ‘Perhaps this is a very “female” style, but
I don’t want to have a network with people I don’t like’ (Interviewee 16).
Another interviewee from the insurance sector with an American background hinted
at culturally dependent negative moral connotations of networking in Germany. Relying
on networking means that ‘you need “vitamin B”; you need someone else to make pro-
gress’ (Interviewee 21). She stated that, as an American, she was ‘less repelled’ by the
16 Human Relations 00(0)
idea of ‘giving and taking’ and that she ‘actively pursues that [kind of networking]’
(Interviewee 21). However, she continued by stressing that she is ‘not only using the
network’ for her purposes ‘but also nurtures it proactively by providing information’ in
order to ‘create a balance’ of give and take (Interviewee 21). Again, this can be inter-
preted as a moral concern regarding appearing to be over-benefiting from networking.
The same concern was expressed by a female entrepreneur who described her high-pro-
file contact as follows: ‘It’s not that I’m connecting with them on purpose, it just hap-
pens’ (Interviewee 9).
Another facet found to adversely affect women’s network effectiveness is their sense
of moral obligation to foster networks with lower-level employees to support and mentor
them. The interviewees stressed that especially junior women and female peers must be
supported and that they are committed to doing so. ‘Every person is interesting … I never
cared about a person’s title, function or role’ (Interviewee 5), one DAX 30 top manager
stated. The tendency to connect with lower-level colleagues appeared to be intensified by
a need to be liked, implying a compliance with gender stereotypes that require women to
be communal, unselfish and caring (e.g. Schein, 2001; Schein et al., 1996; Willemsen,
2002). Tannen (1995) demonstrates the impact of gender-specific socialization applied
during childhood on future career paths with her observations of behaviours engaged in
work lunches: men eat with the highest-level person possible, whereas women spend that
time with peers or lower-level colleagues. In reflecting upon her own behaviour, one top
manager from the insurance industry argued that, ‘Women look at networks from a social
point of view … They do not ask the question “How will this benefit me?”’ (Interviewee
27). One former DAX 30 executive board member critically reflected on her past net-
working behaviours: ‘I was always good at networking with my team’ (Interviewee 16).
However, unlike her efforts to connect with subordinates and peers, she admitted to hav-
ing experienced issues with connecting with superiors: ‘I was bad at networking to foster
the next step in my career path’ (Interviewee 16). When she took up her position on the
executive board, she ‘all of a sudden received a tremendous number of contact queries
from all sides’ (Interviewee 16), which she was not pleased about, as this had clearly
occurred as a result of colleagues seeking a rewarding, high-profile contact.
Furthermore, our analysis shows that work–family conflicts are closely related to
moral concerns surrounding engaging in professional networking. Interviewees with
children told us of their efforts to balance work and family responsibilities. Some
revealed their moral concerns about not fulfilling their roles as employees and mothers
at the expected levels, and they feared either letting their colleagues down owing to fam-
ily obligations or neglecting their families because of networking obligations. One top
executive from a DAX 30 company with two children said that she needed to ‘bear a
guilty conscience’ alongside her career (Interviewee 17). She explained how this burden
was not felt in such a way by her husband, who had also pursued a prestigious career.
Another executive board member reported applying a strict rule for meetings with her
management team: ‘After six there are no meetings … because of my kids’ (Interviewee
2). She was in the position of enjoying enough seniority to be able to set such a rule. At
lower levels, women with children may feel at a disadvantage for not being able to work
longer hours or to engage in professional networking events as opportunities arise. As a
consequence, women doubt that they are able to give back and to adhere to norms of
Greguletz et al. 17
reciprocity. Such fears, in turn, spur a hesitation to engage intensively in networking.
This moral concern regarding over-benefiting owing to an inability to return favours also
causes women to shy away from networking activities.
The role of gendered modesty. The second intrinsic theme of our analysis is captured by a
concept familiar to the gender-focused literature on negotiations: gendered modesty (Bar-
ron, 2003; Janoff-Bulman and Wade, 1996; Kulik and Olekalns, 2012). Our analysis
shows that our interview partners were constrained by self-doubt and by limited faith in
their own abilities to make valuable contributions to their networks. For instance, one
participant in a leadership position in the banking sector described how she had arrived at
a point at which she fundamentally questioned herself, which she viewed as ‘something
that might be typical of females’ (Interviewee 22). She warned that this can be career-
inhibiting, as it is important to ‘position yourself positively in the eyes of powerful per-
sons typically part of “old boy networks”’ (Interviewee 22). ‘Beating your own drum is
part of the business’ (Interviewee 22), she added. Another interviewee directly pointed to
the importance of maintaining a healthy sense of self-worth in the context of networking.
She had noticed a lack of self-worth among women throughout her career, which she sug-
gested may be attributed to ‘a stereotypical educational or cultural imprint that gives
women the feeling of having less … value to add to networks’ (Interviewee 21).
Gendered modesty is closely related to a lack of self-confidence. One female top
manager related the lower self-confidence levels of women to their lack of visibility at
important networking events such as conferences. She noted that, in panel discussions, ‘I
still don’t see enough women’ (Interviewee 8). She described female underrepresentation
among such speakers as follows: ‘Women don’t feel comfortable sitting on stage and …
showing themselves there’ (Interviewee 8). One executive board member from the bank-
ing sector observed that men act in a much more goal-oriented and utilitarian way in
regard to positioning themselves in networks. They do not hesitate to purposefully
approach powerful contacts directly and to ‘advertise their greatness’ (Interviewee 36).
‘We women need to be more self-confident’ (Interviewee 17), stated one female
leader from a DAX 30 company. She illustrated this need by describing typical reactions
of female colleagues to vacant positions advertised in her company. She noted that when
women are unable to find an immediate match between any individual job requirement
and their qualifications, they become discouraged and do not apply. In contrast, men
were said to believe that if ‘there is a requirement that I meet, I’ll apply’ (Interviewee
17). The experiences of other interviewees support the view that ‘women tend to be
overly self-critical and focus on what they cannot do’ (Interviewee 22): ‘It has often been
my experience that when I have offered a very competent female employee a job, she has
reacted negatively by saying “I can’t do that, because I’ve never done it before”’
(Interviewee 36). She also commented on how women sabotage their own career efforts
with their lack of self-confidence. The same holds for job changes, as women tend to
significantly underestimate their value in the job market. Therefore, women are advised
to ‘walk around with their heads held high and to say “if you don’t want me or like me,
I’ll go somewhere else”’ (Interviewee 17). She concluded that ‘now is the best time for
women to enter leadership positions, and we need to develop their self-confidence to do
so’ (Interviewee 17). One executive board member from the financial industry noted that
18 Human Relations 00(0)
women need the ‘self-confidence to dare to take the next step’ (Interviewee 36) of their
career journeys.
Another theme that arose from our analysis related to specific training programmes
designed for females. Companies often offer training and workshops related to female
employees’ self-image and self-presentation, as such resources help address and improve
women’s often very poor self-marketing skills, which are crucial for career advance-
ment. One participant described how her employer’s training programmes are specifi-
cally focused on the needs of talented young female employees: ‘We offer a special
training programme … that addresses issues related to dealing with power, handling
resistance, positioning oneself, self-marketing, etc.’ Similarly, issues of self-image and
self-presentation were observed as recurring themes; our interview partners offered the
following advice to the next generation of female leaders, which offer us insight into
their own experiences: ‘Be aware of your self-worth’ (Interviewee 21), ‘market yourself’
(Interviewee 20, Interviewee 22), ‘communicate your aspirations’ (Interviewee 20),
‘don’t sell yourself short’ (Interviewee 30), ‘be visible’ (Interviewee 13, Interviewee 5,
Interviewee 36) and ‘don’t be too modest!’ (Interviewee 4).
In summary, our systematic analysis of our interview data revealed two aggregated
dimensions: structural exclusion and personal hesitation. These concepts contribute
to the development of a holistic understanding of why women build less effective
networks than men. These theoretical contributions, their practical implications and
limitations as well as avenues for future research are discussed in the following
section.
Discussion
In this study, we set out to examine why women engage in less effective networking
behaviour. Using SET as a theoretical lens, our analysis confirms the existence of extrin-
sic barriers of work–family conflict and homophily that limit women’s network forma-
tion and undermine their motivation for networking. Our results further show that on one
hand women as recipients are careful not to over-benefit and to emphasize the moral
aspects of reciprocity; on the other hand, as donors to exchange relationships they run the
risk of underestimating and poorly marketing their own contributions in a professional
context. With these findings, our study contributes to existing knowledge on structural
barriers (extrinsic) and extends the present understanding of networking and personal
hesitation (involving relational morality and gendered modesty) as an intrinsic barrier. In
so doing we extend the SET-based understanding of networking. Based on these two
dimensions of structural barriers and personal hesitation, we develop a grounded theo-
retical model of networking that offers a holistic understanding of the barriers that from
the perspectives of focal women inhibit gender equality at the workplace. We discuss our
theoretical and practical contributions in the following section.
Theoretical implications
Extrinsic and intrinsic barriers to effective networking. Our findings concerning struc-
tural exclusion (in the form of work–family conflict and homophily) as an extrinsic
Greguletz et al. 19
barrier to effective networking align with and support previous findings on networking
and women. For instance, Forret and Dougherty (2001: 300) argue that the gender imbal-
ance in career-enhancing networking activities is likely attributable to ‘women having
less after-hours socializing time because of child-raising responsibilities’. In their early
work on homophily, Lincoln and Miller (1979) argue that social homogeneity renders
colleagues’ behaviour more predictable and communication with them easier, thus facili-
tating trusting relationships. Existing evidence indeed indicates that women are often-
times excluded from informal social circles of powerful males, and are consequently
disadvantaged when it comes, for instance, to receiving influential mentoring and social
support from colleagues (South et al., 1982) as well as promotions (Brass, 1985). Hence,
part of the challenge of building effective networks arises from issues related to access-
ing potential exchange (networking) partners. Figure 2 (the waterfall bar chart) illus-
trates how women’s networking potential is reduced by barriers of homophily and
work–family conflict.
In complementing this structural explanation for networking ineffectiveness, our
findings concerning personal hesitation (namely, relational morality and gendered mod-
esty) illustrate the existence of intrinsic barriers to engaging in effective networking
behaviour. Therefore, we shed light on women’s individual psychological barriers to
networking, thereby responding to Kuwabara et al.’s (2018: 60) criticism that researchers
neglect ‘what people actually believe and feel about networking’. An exception is the
work of Ingram and Zou (2008) on ‘business friendships’, which points to psychological
difficulties resulting from the combination of instrumentality and affect in professional
social networks. They argue that ‘business friendships represent potential threats to the
self-concept of friends’ when problems related to the reciprocity of instrumental benefits
occur (Ingram and Zou, 2008: 167). Casciaro et al. (2014: 705) have further noted that
individuals fear ‘the contaminating effects of building instrumental ties’, creating a ‘feel-
ing of dirtiness’ in a moral sense.
Figure 2. Grounded theory model on women’s less effective professional networking
compared to men
20 Human Relations 00(0)
Our findings regarding women’s relational morality leading to a hesitation to instru-
mentalize networks to their own advantage while not knowing whether they are able to
return favours align with and extend previous knowledge on networking. As discussed
above, Gouldner (1960) draws a fundamental analytic distinction between the utilitar-
ian perspective and the moral perspective of social exchange relationships. The norm of
reciprocity morally obliges individuals to reciprocate an exchange partner and leads
them to avoid ‘over-benefiting’ from social interactions. Consequently, the norm of
reciprocity serves as a concrete mechanism for maintaining a stable social system such
as a network. According to Vinnicombe and Colwill (1996) as well as Hanson (2000),
networks are considered more utilitarian by men and more social by women, which
specifically suggests the presence of gender-specific approaches to networking. The
literature on leadership training also acknowledges that women are likely to feel inau-
thentic when engaging in activities that serve their personal interests of leadership
advancement (Ely et al., 2011).
Our observations on gendered modesty specifically lead us to consider the motiva-
tions of women as focal actors engaged in networking. Typically, SET scholars empha-
size the importance of the donor trusting the recipient and the willingness of the donor
to accept the risk of not being paid back as a basis for a social exchange relationship
(Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005). Our results suggest that women as donors underes-
timate the value of their own contributions and hence hesitate to engage in networking.
In terms of such gendered modesty, the literature on negotiation reveals a similar ten-
dency among women to underestimate their worth. A study by Barron (2003) shows
that males exhibit more certainty regarding their self-worth than females in negotiation
situations, and are more eager to prove their worth to their negotiation partners. In her
practitioners’ book, Sheryl Sandberg (2013) devotes an entire chapter (‘Sit at the
table’) to the issue of women’s lack of self-confidence, and underestimations of their
own abilities. In reflecting on her experiences as a top female executive, she notes that
‘We consistently underestimate ourselves’ (Sandberg, 2013: 31). This practical insight
corresponds with the findings of academic studies on women’s unfavourable judge-
ments of their own performance. For instance, Heatherington et al. (1993: 739) found
that ‘females present themselves more modestly than males in achievement situations’,
even though their actual performance does not differ.
The presence of gendered modesty may also be explained by the existence of stereo-
types. Characteristics that foster proactive and instrumental networking for one’s own
benefit stand in sharp contradiction to female stereotypes, but align with male stereotypes
(Bowles et al., 2007; Janoff-Bulman and Wade, 1996: 145). Hence, our findings align
with presumed societal expectations of appropriate female behaviour. Such so-called
‘backlash effects’ for disconfirming gender stereotypes (i.e. ‘negative reactions to female
agency and authority’, Rudman and Phelan, 2008: 61) are discussed in the negotiation
literature (e.g. Janoff-Bulman and Wade, 1996) and appear to us to be an intensifier of
women’s relational morality and modesty issues. Janoff-Bulman and Wade (1996: 143)
relate women’s ‘failure to negotiate’ to the ‘self-advocacy dilemma’. Female self-promo-
tion is regularly linked to social costs, such as the loss of likeability, because it violates
cultural gender stereotypes. Such stereotypical thinking on gender attributes characterizes
men as confident, rational and independent, whereas women are considered unselfish,
Greguletz et al. 21
emotional and subordinate (e.g. Burgess and Borgida, 1999; Heilmann, 2001; Powell
et al., 2002). Therefore, women’s negotiation behaviour tends to be more modest to fit
with the ‘powerful norm of modesty … to guide appropriate behaviour’ for women
(Janoff-Bulman and Wade, 1996: 145). Further, in regard to initiating negotiations over
resources such compensation, women are more reluctant to do so because they fear being
penalized for being too demanding (Bowles et al., 2007). According to Tannen (1995),
such distinct behavioural patterns observed in men and women in professional contexts
can be attributed to patterns of childhood socialization. From a young age, girls are
rewarded for playing down their achievements, whereas boys are rewarded for boasting
about them. Hence, early on, girls internalize the idea that in exhibiting modesty they can
become more popular with others.
Grounded theoretical model on networking. The pressure to reciprocate a favour is central
to both SET and equity theory, which aim at achieving an ‘equilibrium state of benefits’
between parties and to the moral approach, which seeks to prevent ‘over-benefiting’ on
the part of each individual. In describing women’s engagements in networking on a con-
tinuum ranging from purely utilitarian to purely moral, our findings lead us to position
women on the moral end. Hence, the relational morality effect limits the net benefits that
women are likely to gain from professional networking to interactions through which
they under-benefit (‘giving > taking’) or at best through which their inputs are equal to
the outputs (‘giving = taking’). Conscious considerations regarding a ‘fair ratio’ between
giving and taking in social interactions requires an estimation of the personal value that
someone has to offer to social contacts. When, owing to their modesty, women underes-
timate what they have to offer business contacts or their professional networks overall,
they hesitate to establish social ties with people whom they consider to have significantly
more to offer in terms of power, knowledge, experience, insider information, and so on.
Consequently, the perceived ‘fairness equilibrium’ in the eyes of women in fact creates a
negative delta between taking and giving (Figure 2, depicted as a shift to the left into the
shaded triangle where the balance between taking and giving becomes increasingly neg-
ative). Hence, it is women’s overly modest perceptions of their own value in relation to
their network partners’ value that distorts their perceived fairness and desirable equilib-
rium. As a result, networking behaviour is not as advantageous (i.e. effective) for women
as it is for men in terms of assisting them in their work and enhancing their careers.
This imbalance becomes even more significant as moral considerations become more
dominant, because they function as an intensifier of the gendered modesty effect. If
women are morally motivated to be concerned about over-benefiting from social interac-
tions under any given circumstances, they value their potential inputs to network rela-
tions even more conservatively and hesitate to receive gifts because of the obligation to
reciprocate. However, reinforcement also occurs in the opposite direction: underestima-
tion of self-worth in a network is likely to intensify moral concerns regarding engaging
in networking activities. As a consequence of the mutually reinforcing relationship of
these two effects, the under-benefiting effect observed under the assumptions of equity
theory becomes even more detrimental.
This logic aligns with and provides a possible explanation for the results of previous
studies. For instance, Brass (1985), Forret and Dougherty (2004) as well as Ibarra (1992,
22 Human Relations 00(0)
1997) show that women enjoy less powerful and effective networks than do men. Scott’s
(1996: 239) study also shows that ‘men generally have more contacts with those at the
top than do women, even when they have the same titles, amount of experience, work
history and are the same age’. Thus, even if women objectively offer the ‘same value’ to
networks as men, they still connect with less powerful people than men in comparable
positions. They tend to build ties with colleagues of the same or lower hierarchical levels
rather than ‘orientating themselves upwards’ (e.g. Scott, 1996). Aligned with SET, wom-
en’s subjective evaluations of what they have to offer are significantly less impressive
than objective evaluations; therefore, they ‘undersell themselves’. As a consequence,
they position themselves less favourably in regard to networking.
Practical implications
First and foremost, we hope that this article’s findings will motivate women to scrutinize
their positioning in networks and encourage them to interact more proactively and less
reservedly with powerful social contacts. Women’s tendencies to underestimate their
value in professional networks and on the job market are at odds with the demand for
qualified women. Instead, women can be convinced of their qualities and of their result-
ing objective ‘professional value’ and engage proactively in the powerful networks that
they are likely to benefit from and valuably contribute to.
Our study also offers interesting insights into networking patterns for corporate deci-
sion-makers on the whole and for men in particular. Powerful persons can support female
engagement by taking the first step towards establishing networks and towards reaching
out to women who hide behind their modesty. Such a step will likely benefit not only the
women approached but also initiators and the entire social environment owing to the
contributions that women can make. In addition to such ‘pull effects’, increased aware-
ness resulting from, for example, training programmes tailored towards women’s needs
can create a ‘push effect’ that encourages women to engage in networking.
Limitations and future research
It is important to consider the limitations of this study. First, our interviews were of a
retrospective nature, as the interviewees recalled past experience and events. However,
as Bateson (1972: xvi) states, ‘[An individual] cannot know what he is facing until he
faces it, and then looks back over the episode to sort out what happened’ (cited in Weick,
1995: 305–306). Thus, this article hopefully encourages other researchers to further
examine women’s extrinsic and intrinsic barriers to effective networking through the use
of alternative or complementary study designs (e.g. longitudinal, observational or exper-
imental studies) to overcome the aforementioned potential bias.
It should also be recognized that the extent to which people engage in networks or hesi-
tate to approach social contacts for support is influenced by aspects other than those iden-
tified in this article, such as personality traits (Wolff and Kim, 2012). Although there are
excellent female and poor male networkers, we are confident that our data reveal typical
patterns and motivation of female networking behaviour. Furthermore, the gender stereo-
types discussed, which reflect widely shared views of acceptable behaviour for men and
Greguletz et al. 23
women, vary from society to society (Schein et al., 1996). Although our interview part-
ners had working experience abroad or had at least worked with international teams, they
had primarily worked in German contexts. One interviewee with a German / American
background noted cultural differences in how networking is perceived per se. In contrast
to networking in the USA, networking in Germany is associated with a negative connota-
tion of needing another person’s ‘vitamin B’ to progress. This could have an impact on the
relational morality theme derived. Hence, it may be worthwhile to extend our study to
other settings, such as an American setting. It would also be interesting to examine the
long-term effects of an increasing number of women who are assuming powerful posi-
tions on ‘rules of play’ in effective power networks. According to our expectations, a
higher proportion of women will bring about a change at least with regard to structural
barriers. However, it is also conceivable that the nature of important networks will become
more emotional, morally concerned and less dominated by utilitarian motives.
We would like to acknowledge that networking behaviours may benefit women in
ways that did not surface in this study. Networks not only provide access to instrumental
resources that foster career advancement but also emotional and more intangible but still
valuable benefits such as social support and friendship (Ibarra, 1993). The literature also
refers to such relationships as having ‘expressive value’ (Rothstein et al., 2001: 4). Some
authors, such as Molm (2003), argue that the act of reciprocation is in and of itself more
important than the magnitude of its value because consistent reciprocity serves as a
mechanism to reduce uncertainty. Hence, future studies should critically consider effec-
tiveness in networking as it is presented in this article.
Conclusion
Researching why women have less success with networking is vitally important to efforts
towards the development of gender equality in work settings. Our study confirms the
existence of structural barriers in the form of homophily and work–family conflict that
hinder women’s networking efforts. Furthermore, women’s tendencies to harbour moral
concerns about ‘exploiting’ social ties cause them to under-benefit from networking
activities based on the social exchange of benefits. This adverse effect of relational
morality on networking effectivity is complemented by women’s tendencies to underes-
timate and undersell their professional self-worth (i.e. gendered modesty). These consid-
erations provide a holistic explanation for women’s hesitations to instrumentalize social
ties and for the consequent ineffectiveness of their professional networking efforts com-
pared to those of their male counterparts.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thank the participants at seminars at EBS Business School for helpful
comments on earlier versions of this article. The article benefited greatly from the feedback of two
anonymous reviewers and Associate Editor Olga Tregaskis.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or
not-for-profit sectors.
24 Human Relations 00(0)
ORCID iD
Marjo-Riitta Diehl https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4553-4295
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Elena Greguletz finished her doctoral studies focusing on women’s pathways to leadership at EBS
Business School, Department of Management and Economics, in June 2018. She holds a bache-
lor’s degree from EBS Business School, Germany and a master’s degree from London School of
Economics, UK. After graduation, Elena rejoined the German management consultancy goetzpart-
ners, focusing on international restructuring, transformation and organizational change projects.
[Email: elena.greguletz@ebs.edu]
Marjo-Riitta (Maikki) Diehl is Professor of Organizational Behavior and HRM at EBS Business
School in Germany. She received her PhD from the London School of Economics, UK. Her
research interests include organizational justice and other social exchange theory based concepts
to study employment relationships and diversity management. Marjo-Riitta’s work has appeared
in various international and national outlets, including Journal of Management, Human Relations
and Journal of Managerial Psychology. [Email: marjo-riitta.diehl@ebs.edu]
Karin Kreutzer is Professor of Social Business School at EBS Business School, Germany. She
holds a doctoral degree from University of St Gallen, Switzerland, a master’s degree in International
Business Studies from University of Passau, Germany and a master’s degree in Management of
Nonprofit Organizations from Bocconi University, Italy. She worked for international NGOs in
Germany and Italy. Karin Kreutzer has done research on organizational identity in hybrid organi-
zations, nonprofit governance and professionalization. [Email: karin.kreutzer@ebs.edu]
28 Human Relations 00(0)
Appendix 1. List of interviewees.
Interviewee Position OriginaAge Children
1 Executive board member German ~45 2
2 Executive board member (DAX or MDAX) German ~45 2
3 Leadership position German ~50 1
4 Leadership position German ~45 2
5 Leadership position French ~45 0
6 Leadership position German ~40 0
7 Executive board member German ~45 3
8 Executive board member German ~40 1
9 Entrepreneur German ~35 0
10 Entrepreneur German ~50 0
11 Leadership position German ~40 2
12 Executive board member (DAX or MDAX) German ~50 0
13 Entrepreneur German ~40 0
14 Entrepreneur German ~50 6
15 Entrepreneur German ~30 0
16 Executive board member (DAX or MDAX) German ~60 1
17 Leadership position (DAX or MDAX) Swedish ~45 2
18 Executive board member (DAX or MDAX) German ~55 1
19 Executive board member French ~35 1
20 Leadership position German ~55 1
21 Leadership position US-American ~40 1
22 Leadership position German ~40 0
23 Leadership position (DAX or MDAX) German ~60 1
24 Leadership position German ~50 2
25 Executive board member (DAX or MDAX) German ~45 1
26 Leadership position German ~35 0
27 Leadership position German ~50 3
28 Executive board member German ~40 0
29 Entrepreneur German ~55 2
30 Leadership position German ~50 1
31 Executive board member (DAX or MDAX) German ~60 2
32 Entrepreneur German ~45 0
33 Entrepreneur German ~50 2
34 Executive board member German ~50 4
35 Entrepreneur German ~50 2
36 Executive board member German ~65 1
37 Executive board member German ~50 0
aOrigin as mentioned in interviews.
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