Networks, women, and a pandemic: a recipe for invisibility
Individuals with the power to recommend others for jobs and promotions tend to rely on networks as a tool to find suitable candidates for such recommendations. However, since most of these powerful individuals tend to be men, they are inclined to choose other men for jobs and promotions eliminating most eligible women (Perrault, 2015). The playing field is not levelled even if women have similar networks to those of men. In fact, women with similar networks to those of men tend to benefit less when it comes to obtaining key decision-making roles such as top management positions (Burzynska & Contreras, 2020). Hence, women frequently need to work extra hard on the networking front to become more visible and enhance their chances for upward mobility. But how do women, who need to work harder on the networking front, fare in a pandemic where organizations shift to remote work?
Here, I highlight are two possible ways in which remote work can aggravate the existing gender differences in network benefits already documented in the literature. First, in an attempt to become more visible, women who actively participate in meetings may be penalized instead. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers abruptly shuttered offices sending their employees home to work remotely for an indefinite time. Remote work replaced face-to-face meetings with meetings through online platforms like Skype, Zoom, and the like (teleconferencing). In general, teleconferencing facilitates communication by making any employee reachable with the press of a button, but it also accentuates the role of impression management. That is, teleconferencing requires employees to manage how they present themselves better than in face-to-face interactions (Barsness et al., 2005). Typically, teleconferencing requires employees to be more assertive to get their point across and to be perceived as being in control (Barsness et al., 2005). However, the benefits of being assertive at meetings are not gender neutral. Existing research shows that women tend to be penalized for being assertive and speaking up at meetings (Brescoll, 2011). Indeed, Yoshiro Mori’s remark about “women talking too much” at the Olympic committee meeting was not a one-off event. Moreover, reading social cues while teleconferencing is more difficult that in person. As a result, the penalties women receive from being too assertive while teleconferencing may be magnified and in anticipation of such penalties women may simply refrain from being assertive increasing their invisibility.
Second, in an attempt to juggle work and house chores, women may end up spending less time on the networking front. Due to unequal distribution of household chores, women already spend more time than men in unpaid household work. The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to women bearing an even larger burden of household work than before the pandemic (Alon et al., 2020; Andrew et al., 2020). In order to compensate for this increase in household burdens, women are disproportionately reducing work hours (Collins et al., 2021). This reduction is even more prominent among women with children who take on the responsibility of home schooling their kids during school closures. Considering that women need more time for their household obligations, they may be more likely to forgo networking opportunities that allow them to develop and strengthen their relations with others. As a result, the already limited integration of women in networks may be further impaired contributing to their invisibility.
Highlighting how remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic can aggravate the existing gender differences in network benefits is but the very first step. The next step is for employers to acknowledge these challenges and to find solutions. For example, Mallick (2021) proposes employers to offer a pandemic leave of absence for pre-pandemic top performing women who need to reduce their work hours during the pandemic to allow them return to work post-pandemic without holding grudges against them; to commit to eliminate the pandemic gap year bias when recruiting women who have been out of work; and to create return-to-work and re-skilling programs for women who (partially) left work during the pandemic. While Mallick’s suggestions focus on approaches to help women who have (partially) left work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I exhort employers to work towards equitable measures with the purpose of preventing women leaving work and being cut-off from promotion opportunities. For instance, employers should be wary of cutting off women who are performing poorly during the pandemic but who were performing well pre-pandemic. Last, similar to Arora et al. (2020), diverse committees should be formed to evaluate promotions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic; diverse pools of candidates should be evaluated; and the candidates’ contributions, disruptions, and caretaking responsibilities should be accounted in a way that fairly evaluates them.
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Once a month there will be published an article written by one of our teachers economics at the Radboud University. We really appreciate the contribution of the economics department a lot. This month we may thank Gabriela Contreras, assistant professor of Business Economics, for her article about networks, women and a pandemic: a recipe for invisibility.