Gendered social networks are in the way of women’s career paths



We must break gender-aligned patterns of social contact that are found to rob women of job and advancement opportunities

Calendar year 2022 ended with some surprising statistical discoveries by me. Only three women economists have received the prestigious Mahalanobis Memorial Award so far, including one woman recipient of the National Award (yours truly), while only two have received the Infosys Prize in the discipline of economics, including just one woman of colour (Rohini Pande at Yale University). In a field where women have contributed richly and continue

to do so, both within academia and policy-making, why do their contributions often go unrecognized and unrewarded? This issue is of wider concern, and not just restricted to economics, academia or white-collar occupations—particularly when women role models are integral to the project of encouraging younger women to not only be active participants in India’s workforce, but also join typically male-dominated occupations.

In recent research, Amrita Dhillon and I highlight inherent differences in the nature of social connections and their role in determining workforce participation and career outcomes of women and men. Social connections or networks are typically homophilous—we tend to form stronger ties with people who share our social identity, such as along the dimensions of gender and caste. Hence, the social networks of women and men are often segregated by gender. Moreover, women tend to have fewer social connections, and these are based on strong emotional bonds. On the other hand, men have a far greater number of social ties, which are broader and more likely to comprise casual acquaintances.

This gendered structure of social networks exists across the spectrum of socio-economic status. Data collected with co-researchers in low-income areas of Delhi in 2019 show that women’s ties are more likely to be with female relatives or neighbours, while men have a wider social circle that extends well beyond the home and neighbourhood.

This gendered structure of social connections is reinforced by the custom of women marrying outside their place of birth or village. Most of the women residing in these poor neighbourhoods are migrants to cities post-marriage and they

consequently lose their natal links and networks. National Sample Survey (NSS) data shows that over 30% of the total rural-to-urban migration in India is for the purpose of marriage, and 61% of women who migrate from rural to urban areas report marriage as the main reason for moving to cities.

Furthermore, women’s safety concerns are higher in cities relative to villages. For example, as per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 383 crimes (per million women) against women were reported in Delhi, while the national average was 202 (per million women) in 2009. These socio-cultural factors, therefore, restrict women’s physical mobility, more so in urban contexts with poor public infrastructure (such as transport) and a poor record on women’s safety.

As a result, women are relegated to social interactions within the family and neighbourhoods, which may provide social-emotional support but are not advantageous when it comes to finding work and obtaining referrals. This deprives them of chances to access information related to job openings and other work opportunities, especially since most of their social connections are themselves unemployed women.

Beyond women’s engagement in the labour market, the gendered nature of networks can affect the career progression and earnings of working women. Positions of influence in the workplace tend to be dominated by men, and they may also have more opportunities to establish and maintain such powerful ties, for example by interacting socially after work hours at pubs while working women must return home to cook dinner and take care of children. Analysing data on the earnings of 16,000 senior executives across the US, UK, France and Germany, Lalanne and Seabright show that male executives’ salaries rise as the number of their social ties increases. However, this is not true for women.

Women’s social connections are less amenable to aiding their rise within the ranks of workers, even in female-dominated blue-collar work (such as in the garments sector). For instance, Sharma finds that social norms restrict women’s interactions with their male supervisors or higher-ranked managers, inhibiting both the number of workplace ties and how influential those ties are. This is a likely reason for the absence of women in management positions in factories, based on data we collected from garment establishments in the National Capital Region of Delhi. Thus, while physical mobility of women is critical to breaking the gendered structure of networks that constrain women’s participation in paid work, social norms that stigmatize women who socialize with men outside their family may also limit their career progression.

An experimental study conducted in Malawi effectively sums up the effect of social networks on women’s work and career progression. It finds that not only are men less likely to refer qualified women candidates for a job, women also do not refer enough high-quality women out of fear of competition! Therefore, both male support for women colleagues and senior women mentoring and promoting junior female colleagues is important to ensure that women are not relegated to the margins of the labour market and their chosen professions.

Farzana Afridi is a professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, and head, Digital Platforms and Women’s Economic Empowerment Program.

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