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If you look at entry-level jobs in American corporations, roughly half are done by women and half done by men. But then as you go higher and higher up the corporate ladder, the share of jobs held by women gets smaller. Only about 20% of senior executives are women and fewer than 10% of CEOs. And one possible explanation for why women don't get promoted as quickly as men do is the boys' club hypothesis.
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GARCIA: This is the idea that at the office, men have more access to socializing and networking opportunities with the more powerful men who run the companies and then can promote them. Well, there's a fascinating new working paper from economists Zoe Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia that tests not only whether the boys' club hypothesis actually applies but crucially, how it works. They used four years of detailed data from a large anonymous bank, and what they discovered could have big implications for a world where a lot more people work from home after the pandemic. And so those schmoozing networking opportunities go away, or at least they'll be different. So after the break, a chat with Zoe Cullen about this intriguing new research.
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GARCIA: Zoe Cullen, thanks so much for joining us.
ZOE CULLEN: Thank you for having me here.
GARCIA: In your paper, you take advantage of the fact that at this firm you studied, the managers rotate from team to team, which creates these kinds of pairings where sometimes, you have a male manager and a male worker, a male manager and a female worker and, of course, female managers and male or female workers as well. And that gives you kind of this interesting experiment that you can use to see what ends up happening in terms of the subordinates getting promoted. So take us through what you found.
CULLEN: So the first step is seeing just how people end up socializing with each other in these different pairings that you describe. And the first finding is that for men paired with male managers, there is a pretty significant boost in the share breaks that they spend together. And for a female, it doesn't make a difference. So whether she has a female manager or a male manager, the time they spend together is more or less the same.
GARCIA: That's interesting, so there's something unique to the male manager/male subordinate pairing that leads them to spend more sort of non-working social time together while at the office. Is that correct?
CULLEN: That's right. And what we find happens next is that the career progressions also look quite different depending on whether a male employee has that male manager versus a female employee has that male manager.
GARCIA: So in other words, specifically, that the men tend to get promoted more quickly when they do have that male manager. And then for women, it didn't matter at all.
CULLEN: That's right.
GARCIA: So, Zoe, you've identified this pathway for advancement that clearly works for male workers when they have a male boss. Why is it that women don't also have a similar path for advancement, for example, when they have a female boss?
CULLEN: Well, so this is where the data speaks. The surprising fact is that women tend to socialize the same degree whether or not they have a male or female manager. And the same is true for female managers. Irrespective of the gender of their employees, they tend to allocate their time similarly. As a consequence, you don't see the same types of advantages developing from a disproportionate share of together time that we see with male employees and male managers. The reason why is something that we can't observe directly but for which there are some really good ideas. One would be that women are more constrained by other obligations in terms of how they can use their time in the workplace. So, for example, they might have things to get home to. Another hypothesis is that the types of activities that are condoned in the workplace are chosen by the male leadership. And as a result, perhaps they reflect the preferences of men.
GARCIA: Yeah. I'm so fascinated by this because it really does kind of give us some sense of how the social interactions that sometimes happen subconsciously - we don't even think about - actually do end up having a very large effect on professional outcomes.
CULLEN: Yes. And you might have this idea in mind that some not just social interactions occur during these breaks together, but some productive things might happen as well. You might learn about the tasks that you're supposed to be doing. The manager might figure out which person is best for the job. But what we find in this case is that following these boosts in promotions that are linked to more social breaks, there's no corresponding increase in, say, the hours people spend at work, the number of emails they send or the sales revenue that they generate from doing their job.
GARCIA: In other words, it's not that these social interactions lead to better performance. The social interactions themselves are the things responsible, it seems, for the more rapid promotion in the case of men who have male managers.
CULLEN: That's exactly right.
GARCIA: Do you have any conclusions about what might break that self-perpetuating cycle?
CULLEN: Well, one idea that I like is promotion by committee, by which I mean there's more than one person who makes decisions about the career progression of an employee. And so schmoozing or spending a lot of time in these personal interactions doesn't end up playing as big a role in bigger decisions about who should be doing which tasks in the workplace or who should be moving up the corporate ladder.
GARCIA: Yeah. I guess in some sense, it also means that people stop getting promoted just based on how likable they are and more on how well they do in their actual jobs, right?
CULLEN: Yeah, that's right. So, of course, any steps towards measuring in an objective way what people are doing and how they're contributing will also go a long way towards breaking this relationship between personal interactions and career outcomes.
GARCIA: Do we have some sense of how this happened? In other words, what mechanisms are in place that lead to these outcomes?
CULLEN: Yes, so we push on this quite a bit. And we have some fairly suggestive evidence that the face-to-face time is really pivotal for this advantage to develop. What I mean by that is if we were to look at the types of positions where male managers end up being at a distance from their employees, this kind of advantage doesn't occur. So when there's just physical separation, we can sort of shut down this male-to-male advantage. And you'll then see that the female employees and male employees have similar career progressions, irrespective of the gender of their manager.
GARCIA: That's fascinating. So in other words, if the male manager either works on a different floor as the male and female subordinates, that male-male advantage goes away. Or I would imagine if some of the work is done remotely, the advantage also goes away, right?
CULLEN: Possibly the case - so I think the remote positions that we're seeing today look a lot like some of the positions we studied in our paper where there's reasons for this physical distance.
GARCIA: Should we be more ambivalent or at least more careful about our workplace relationships? - because our interactions can be sources of joy and even friendship. But they can also, in some cases, lead to negative consequences, as your research shows.
CULLEN: Well, I totally agree that there's two sides to the coin when it comes to friendships at work, both because it makes work both enjoyable, motivating, and also, it tends to distort what we think of as the fair thing in the workplace. At the same time, I think it's important for workers in settings that are quite social to recognize that not everyone has access to the powerful individuals making decisions. And as a result, we might be overlooking some really talented folks.
GARCIA: Zoe Cullen, thank you so much.
CULLEN: Thank you very much.
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph). It was edited by Jolie Myers, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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