Women being interrupted more than men in meetings.
Hearing comments about their hair and the appropriate height of their heels. Having their ideas attributed to male colleagues.
These are among the issues that come to mind when thinking about sexism in the workplace. What is less talked about is how everyday sexism gets in the way of the social capital a person has at work: meaning the personal connections that get you recognised for your achievements and for your potential, and that make you feel better supported.
The social relationships we form with colleagues, over lunch, over coffee, in sports teams or in the bar after work, are important for learning what is happening in the organisation and getting noticed for new projects and promotions. Through establishing connections with senior staff (especially those who you don’t work with directly), you are more likely to gain access to new opportunities. Knowing a broader group of people in your field also means that your name might come to mind when lateral hires are made.
It’s also a matter of influence. Informal networks can act as a backdoor into the early stage conversations that lie behind the biggest decisions at work – and this throws the power balance.
Why are informal social networks at work male-dominated? Well, very few men are deliberately keeping women out of the ‘boy’s club’. It happens because women are less likely to have the time to invest in the social glue that makes work more enjoyable and satisfying. This is partly because women work part-time in greater number than men. Or have primary responsibility for caring for their families. Or because women tend to keep up with more people and organise social activities outside work.
It also happens because when people don’t know each other it can feel easier to build rapport with someone of your own gender. Look around at the next party you go to and you’ll notice this happening. So, given that male dominated networks happen unconsciously, action taken to broaden networks is going to feel somewhat forced for a while.
Research we are currently conducting at the University of Cambridge’s Murray Edwards College shows that the majority of British employees surveyed feel the informal networks formed around social relationships between colleagues are male dominated. We’ve also found that both men and women recognise this to be an issue.
When you don’t play in the 5-a-side football team or on poker night, or even hang out in the bar after work, then an obvious consequence is that you don’t get to know more senior colleagues and they don’t get to know you, so career sponsorship becomes less likely.
At Murray Edwards College, we are working with large employers to help inspire change to achieve gender equality by bringing these subtle but powerful and pervasive instances of everyday sexism in workplace culture into the open and running workshops for teams to find solutions.
The next step is to give others the knowledge and tools that help tackle these issues. It’s often difficult for individuals to know what difference their action can make.
Positive action leaders can take to make informal networks inclusive:
- Organise peer mentoring that mixes the genders.
- Encourage staff to make the most of opportunities that already exist to get to know more people. Try nominating a few hosts who are charged with welcoming people and introducing them to people they don’t know.
- Suggest that, once a week, everyone is charged with taking a short tea or coffee break and meeting someone new, ideally in a way that mixes the genders.
- When team-building events or parties are being organised be creative and make it as inclusive as possible, such as ensuring not every event involves alcohol.
- Ban lunching at desks so people eat in social spaces where they are more likely to chat and get to know each other.
- When attending client events, take someone with you who isn’t one of the usual suspects.
- Encourage men in senior positions to extend contacts with women, acting not only as a mentor but also as a sounding board, confidant and sponsor.
About the author
Dr Jill Armstrong is a Researcher and Bye-Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Murray Edwards College, where she is leading their Collaborating with Men programme. This programme works with organisations to support them in being more inclusive, tackling the subtle sexisms in UK offices.
Dr Armstrong is also a published author and a businesswoman. Her works include Like Mother Like Daughter, a book on how career women influence their daughters’ ambitions. Prior to her PhD she led two successful market research companies.