Informal work networks new form of inequality: study

NEW YORK Mon Aug 16, 2010 3:26pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Informal networks at work are fostering inequality and preventing women from advancing their careers and breaking through the glass ceiling, according to new research.

Professor Gail McGuire, of Indiana University South Bend, found that women do not get the same assistance as men from informal connections in the workplace.

"We have laws that prohibit discrimination and enforce equal pay, but that only touches the surface," McGuire said. "We need to look at informal professional structures, not formal ones. These are the real sources of inequality."

McGuire, the chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at the university, evaluated informal networks at one of the country's largest financial services organizations with a nine-page survey of 1,100 employees.

Although men were outnumbered by women in the company, they still occupied higher positions in the firm. And the people in the top jobs, regardless of whether they were men or women, were more likely to help men rather than women further their careers through informal networks.

McGuire said the finding was consistent with other research that has shown that when women make it to the top, they adopt the dominant framework and ideas of their male counterparts.

"Even when they were connected to that high level person, women were less likely to get help in getting a promotion from that person than a similarly situated man," McGuire, who presented her findings to the American Sociological Association meeting, explained in an interview.

When she controlled for factors such as the person's level of experience and the amount of time with the company the findings were the same.

"It basically boiled down to because they were women," she said.

"This is how sexism in this decade is manifesting itself. It is not through really overt negativity, but much more subtle and because it is part of these informal practices which are not touched by laws, it is very, very difficult to change."

McGuire said companies and organizations need to be aware of the impact of informal networks in the workplace.

"The nature of inequality has changed. We need to start understanding how these informal networks and structures work and we need to start making employers aware of their implications and consequences for women," she said.

(Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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