Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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Gail McGuire
Gail McGuire
Photo by Matt Cashore

Carolyn Wiethoff
Carolyn Wiethoff
Photo © 2007 Tyagan Miller

Beyond the Old-Boy Network

by Karen Garinger

"Professional positions now open at Consolidated Financial Corp. Management opportunities, room for advancement. White men only need apply."

Want ads like this were typical in the United States until the mid-1960s, when civil rights legislation spurred employers across the nation to reform their hiring and promotion practices and offer equal opportunity to all qualified workers.

But the struggle for true workplace diversity, especially at upper levels, continues. Gail McGuire, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University South Bend, has often studied diversity issues such as the "glass ceiling" that still bars a disproportionate number of women from management posts; the fact that women employees still earn, overall, only about 77 percent of what their male counterparts do; the uncertain prospects for parity between African Americans and whites in rates of promotion and pay raises.

"Why is it," McGuire asks, "that women and blacks are making so much educational progress, yet they’re still having trouble succeeding in corporate America?"

McGuire’s extensive survey research among financial services workers at a large U.S. company has revealed one answer: informal networks. She describes these networks as "a web of relationships that employees form in which they exchange resources and services." Unlike formal groups of business acquaintances--such as employees who work in the same divisions, on the same projects, or at the same location--informal networks have more fluid boundaries. They are made up of people who associate with one another voluntarily and for more individual reasons, though their networking often has a career-related component. Networking activities might include visiting a co-worker’s cubicle to converse, going to lunch with fellow members of a professional organization who work for different employers, or even discussing one’s work life with a friend who is in another profession.

"Informal networks can help employees get official information about how to get their work done more quickly," McGuire says. "They also enable the members to ask one another about confidential things that they may not want to ask a manager or a superior."

These networks aren’t limited by traditional notions of talking shop. Much of McGuire’s most recent research has focused on the personal dimensions of these relationships--for example, the ways in which network members give and receive news about their lives outside the office, how they listen to one another, under what circumstances they trade encouragement and advice, what would prompt an employee to offer spiritual or religious support to a co-worker or boss.

In her article "Intimate Work: A Typology of the Social Support That Workers Provide to Their Network Members," published this spring in the journal Work and Occupations, McGuire writes, "The social support that workers provide to their network members might seem inconsequential compared to tangible benefits such as jobs, promotions, and wages. While these are undoubtedly key benefits of having social ties at work, changes in American society are making social support an important function of workers’ networks."

As she has studied the ways in which informal networks address workers’ professional and emotional needs, McGuire also has come to understand a hidden power of this type of networking--these networks can actually prevent progress for female and African American employees.

"When I began studying [the financial services] corporation in the 1990s, I expected to find that corporate America was still an old-boy network, with obvious acts of exclusion of women and blacks," she recalls. "But the kinds of inequality I found were much more subtle." In the reality that McGuire was uncovering, the standard business-magazine recommendation to women and African Americans seeking upward mobility--to do more networking--seemed to be missing the point.

"The problem for women employees wasn’t that they weren’t networking as much as white men," she says. "Women knew how to network; they had as many network members as men. The problem was with whom they were networking, what they were getting from the network members."

African American employees had fewer network members than white women did, but the more interesting revelation to McGuire was the similarity in the makeup of the networks between these two underrepresented groups. "They were networking with lower-status people than the white men were," she says. "People who had less to give them. Fewer resources, less power, less legitimacy."

This tendency of female and African American employees to network with co-workers who can offer little help toward advancement is at the root of modern-day inequality in work organizations, says McGuire. "The main way people get good jobs isn’t through the newspaper, it isn’t through headhunters. It’s through informal networks," she says. "So if a white man asks a friend for a job referral, he’s much more likely to get a job that has higher status, higher authority, higher pay."

McGuire would like to see all corporations become more conscious of the roles informal networks play when it comes to job opportunities. "They can’t pass policies that tell employees to network with certain kinds of people," she says. "But they need to make sure that their rules for hiring and promotion are as formalized as possible. Companies can say, ‘When we promote, we’re not going to do it based on who your friends are. We’re actually going to operate according to the principles of a meritocracy.’ Research shows that the more formalized the policies for hiring and promotion, the better off white women and people of color will be."

The other main policy shift that McGuire would like to see is a formal recognition of family responsibilities.

"There have to be more family-friendly workplace policies," she says. "Policies that allow women in particular, but men, too, to combine work and family more easily instead of penalizing workers for having families. Employers aren’t deliberately trying to punish women, but women workers lack support mechanisms such as flex time, job sharing, and other options that would enable them to care for their families and still be productive workers.

"If our country wants to be family-oriented, to have family values," McGuire says, "then we need to implement policies that will help the common good."

Policies for whom?

Some employers may be willing to implement more equitable policies, but they know very little about the employees whose rights they’re trying to protect. Carolyn Wiethoff, a clinical assistant professor of management in the IU Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, studies workplace discrimination against, and inclusion of, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) workers--groups that have traditionally been so stigmatized, they don’t dare reveal their affiliations at work. Recently, she has also begun to consider workplace treatment of followers of marginalized religions such as paganism and Wicca.

In describing the prevalence of negative environments that prevent many GLBT employees from coming out of the closet at work, Wiethoff avoids the term "homophobia." A more accurate expression, in her view, is "heterosexism," with its emphasis on a set of values that assume heterosexuality is superior. In a recent article by Wiethoff and co-researcher Belle Rose Ragins of University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, the authors evoke a bleak portrait of workplace life for most GLBT employees. The majority of state and local governments in the nation do not outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and, Wiethoff and Ragins say, "existing reports indicate that this discrimination is fierce."

Heterosexist discrimination takes many forms, from unexplained career obstacles to overheard insults to physical attacks. In some cases, a worker may never be sure how or when heterosexist discrimination has struck. "An employee may think she was fired because she’s a lesbian," Wiethoff says, "but since she has actually come out to so few people at work because she perceives the workplace as not GLBT-friendly, her boss may not even have known about her sexual identity."

Wiethoff has studied the circumstances under which GLBT employees would feel safe about coming out to their bosses and colleagues. In one experiment, subjects who professed an objection to homosexuality on religious or moral grounds were introduced to individuals who were presented as having professional positions of trust, such as insurance agents or physical therapists. In some cases, Wiethoff then informed the subjects that these professionals were gay. In other cases, the professionals directly revealed their sexual orientation to the subjects.

"Even subjects who described themselves as ‘anti-gay’ said that they trusted people who self-disclosed," Wiethoff says. In contrast, when the professionals were "outed" by Wiethoff, the subjects reported that they considered the professionals to be untrustworthy. So it appears that self-disclosure, even to co-workers who are perceived as unsympathetic, can contribute to a less threatening environment for GLBT workers.

But what leads an employee to self-disclose in the first place? The initial motivation, Wiethoff says, often occurs when the employer has an explicit policy that forbids heterosexist discrimination. The existence of the policy is not as important as how it is executed, however. Such policies are brought to life by what Wiethoff calls an employer’s "shadow structure."

Like Gail McGuire, Wiethoff ascribes great power to the interrelationships that make up "the real norms of an organization: who knows whom, the informal structure in which things get done." She has observed repeatedly that "one of the key indicators that a workplace is GLBT-affirming is when employees bring their partners to business-related social functions."

Lately, Wiethoff has been identifying parallels between the experiences of GLBT workers and those who describe themselves as pagans or as adherents of Wicca. "One commonality is the question of protection under the law," she says. "Paganism and Wicca are officially recognized in some ways--for example, their clergy are accepted in the armed services--but in general, they are not legally considered religions."

As in the GLBT community, pagans and Wiccans tend to avoid disclosing their religious affiliation to those who are perceived as holding fundamentalist religious beliefs. They also are more likely to come out to their co-workers and supervisors if they believe a company’s nondiscrimination policy actually applies to them.

Efforts to create a more inclusive atmosphere in work settings will pay off in the near future, Wiethoff notes. "All of my research on millennials says that we have a much more tolerant generation coming up," she says. "It’s a generation that expects diversity."

Wiethoff has observed this expectation as students in her honors-level management courses carry out a project she regularly assigns. "They choose a group with which they are unfamiliar, ideally one with which they’re uncomfortable, and they do a series of interviews, attend meetings, watch movies. They immerse themselves in the lives of people who see things differently and try to figure out what the world is like from their perspective."

Learning to "get outside our own heads" is not only what her research is all about, it’s the key to expanding workplace diversity, says Wiethoff. "I really believe in the idea that we have to try to think like someone else."

Karen Garinger is a senior editor in the IU Office of Creative Services in Bloomington.