Unconscious Bias
Work and Organizations

Women's jobs, men's jobs

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” We’ve all heard it. The adage contains more than a kernel of truth, particularly at a time when firms receive hundreds of applications for a single position.

But, according to sociologist Lindsey Trimble, networking may not be equally advantageous for men and women job seekers. In fact, it may lead women and men into gender segregated occupations—and to a gender gap in pay.

Trimble explains that previous researchers have found that occupational segregation by gender contributes to a gender wage gap, with women earning 77 cents for every male dollar. In general, occupations with a high proportion of women pay less than occupations with a high proportion of men, even after accounting for education and skill requirements.

Previous researchers also show that network use results in occupational segregation because workers typically find their jobs with the help of same-gender contacts.  But Trimble believes this is only the tip of the iceberg. 

“We need to think about networking as a process,” says Trimble. “To find work with the help of social networks, job seekers first have to ask contacts for help finding a job. The contact must then provide the job seeker with help advancing their search. After that, the job seeker has to use the contact’s resources to submit an application and survive the screening and hiring process."

In short, Trimble argues that using networks to find work is a multi-step process and that each step may channel workers toward gender-segregated employment.

To study how people use thier networks to look for work, Trimble surveyed a random sample of about 600 adults living in Washington State. The survey, sent by mail, asked whether someone had recently sought their help with a job search, and if so, to answer questions about that person and the job they were trying to get. Analyzing these data, Trimble has identified four points or paths in the networking process that propel men and women towards gender-segregated employment.

Turning to same-gender contacts for help

First, Trimble finds that job seekers turn to same gender-contacts for help with their searches. Because contacts are likely to be in gender-segregated positions themselves, when people turn to same-gender contacts disproportionately, they perpetuate occupational gender-segregation. 

In Trimble's study, about 65 percent of job seekers turned to a gender-similar contact for help whereas only 35 percent sought the help of a gender-dissimilar contact. Trimble believes that people turn to same-gender contacts because of their participation in gender-segregated social institutions like work, volunteer, and leisure organizations. In other words, people simply have more opportunities to interact with same-gender contacts.

Same-gender contacts are more likely to help

But whom you ask for help is only part of the story. According to Trimble, job seekers are also more likely to receive help from gender similar rather than gender dissimilar contacts.

This phenomenon, she finds, is especially true for women contacts. When it comes to helping with a job search, women are less likely to help men than to help women. Men, by contrast, help both men and women at approximately equal rates.

But, says Trimble, this finding doesn’t necessarily mean that men are more generous helpers than women—it may simply mean that men are in a better position to provide help.

“Contacts are more likely to help when they are high in status," Trimble explains. "Gender discrimination and occupational gender segregation limit women’s access to jobs with authority and power and access to high power networks. All of these restrictions may limit the kinds of resources that [women] can share with job seekers."

"So, women may be less likely to be in positions to help with job searches, particularly searches for high-status jobs. They might only be able to help those seeking lower status jobs, which we know tends to be women.”

Women job seekers receive more help finding typically female jobs

Trimble also finds that people are more likely to help job seekers find jobs for which they seem like a “good fit”—and that people use gender to determine fit. According to Trimble, “contacts draw on widely shared beliefs about women and men’s work-related capabilities and conclude that some jobs are ‘better fitting’ for some workers than others.”

“[Contacts] may think that job seekers wouldn’t be good at a job, might not be interested in it, or might not have a chance in it,” Trimble says. “These preconceptions may then shape the kinds of information or job-related help that contacts share with job seekers.”

For example, Trimble finds that women job seekers are more likely to receive help – from both men and women – with jobs that have a higher proportion of women in them. So, when women do turn to people who may have information about gender atypical jobs (like men), they still end up receiving help for female-dominated jobs. 

Help from a man is more likely to lead to a job offer

Finally, Trimble is interested in whether or not job seekers are more likely to receive a job offer depending on who helps. She found that job seekers – both men and women – who turned to male contacts were the most likely to receive a job offer.

“This could be because male contacts provide better resources to job seekers than female contacts which job seekers use to secure employment offers," reasons Trimble. "Or it could be that people in charge of hiring take men’s recommendations more seriously than women’s recommendations.”

Regardless, because men turn to men more often than women turn to men, and people who turn to men are more likely to receive offers, men, once again, have a leg up.

Implications for women and organizations

Although networking contributes to occupational gender-segregation, Trimble admits that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

“By no means do I want to give people the impression they should stop networking. The trick is to understand how networks operate and use this information to our advantage. For example, job seekers need to make sure they are sharing information about their skills and interests with the people they network with because the more someone knows about you, the less likely they are to draw on gender stereotypes.”

Trimble also recommends that organizations track how job applicants learn about positions and implement more formalized hiring procedures. This would protect applicants that have networked with women and safeguard against the unfair disadvantages they acquire compared to applicants who have networked with men. 

Trimble also stresses that women should continue to network with other women—after all, one’s best shot at a job might reside with another woman. But, she adds, women should start networking with more men as well.