Improving professional networking outcomes for women

Whether held in-person or online, conferences are an opportunity to meet new people. However, networking isn’t always easy. New research from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management finds a simple way to make networking easier for women, who often face significant barriers in doing so, especially in fields where they are a minority.

The research, by Carlson School Assistant Professors Sofia Bapna and Russell Funk, was recently published in MIS Quarterly. Using a randomized field experiment at an Information Technology (IT) conference, the study found that relative to men, women met 42% fewer new contacts, spent 48% less time talking to them, and added 25% fewer LinkedIn connections.

Bapna and Funk theorized that in fields where women are underrepresented (e.g., IT), two networking barriers – search and social – affect men and women differently. Search barriers make it difficult to locate and identify useful connections. Social barriers make it difficult to interact with strangers.

The authors designed simple email communications to reduce these barriers. To reduce search barriers, individuals received nonreciprocal “networking recommendations” (i.e., if A was on B’s list, B was not necessarily on A’s). Thus, individuals were indirectly connected – via the recommendations of their recommendations – to many conference participants. This facilitates locating diverse contacts and useful information. To reduce social barriers, individuals received reciprocal “networking introductions” to each other (i.e., if A was on B’s list, B was also on A’s list). Small group membership facilitates helping behavior and connecting across social boundaries.

The search intervention increased the number of new contacts women met by 57%, the time they spent talking with them by 90%, the number of LinkedIn connections they added by 29%, and their odds of changing jobs by a factor of 1.6. The social intervention increased the time women spent talking to new contacts by 66%. The interventions did not change the majority group’s (i.e., men’s) networking outcomes. They did well even without the interventions.

“Our study has implications for policy makers and managers in IT seeking to foster growth in women’s professional networks as a conduit to catalyzing women’s career advancement in the field,” the authors wrote. “Specifically, we found that the search intervention developed in this study provided consistent benefits and offers a simple, low-cost solution that can be easily implemented.”

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