· 2 min read · Features

Women must use their social capital to get to the top


Women must be supported to realise that visibility, trust and acceptance are all critical to promotional success

It is undisputed that the inclusion of women at senior levels allows organisations to capitalise on the full scope of intellectual capital available to them. However, the supply of female talent to the executive pipeline is cited as being one of the most significant challenges to organisations.

There has been much attention on the proverbial glass ceiling. But despite this, the reason women remain underrepresented continues to be debated. In recent years reputational and subjective criteria have been found to have increasing importance in promotion decisions the higher up an organisational hierarchy one progresses, suggesting the relevance of social capital.

Yet access to social networks and the quality of relational ties often differ for men and women. Women typically are considered restricted in their access to networks and this difference can therefore be considered a barrier to career opportunities. My ‘The Importance of Social Capital for Breaking the Glass Ceiling’ study, supervised by Ruth Sealy at City University London, set out to establish a better understanding of how social capital contributes to senior level promotion and the extent to which this contribution is gendered.

Twelve women, employed as chief executive officer or managing director, were interviewed to explore their perceptions of social capital and the extent to which they believed it to have been instrumental. Social capital can be understood in terms of three desired outcomes: visibility, trust and acceptance. Visibility relates to the number or density of connections one is affiliated to. Trust refers to the quality of the relationships one has. Acceptance is associated to perceptions of ‘fit’.

Visibility, trust and acceptance were all found to be critical to promotional success, with all of the women citing the contribution of each in their reports. The findings of this study suggest that firstly, social capital is critical in the attainment of leadership roles, and secondly, that women differ to men in their ability to accrue or utilise social capital. Three practical implications of these findings will now be considered in turn.

First, it is important for key decision makers and line managers to be made aware of the role that social capital can play in the assessment process and the prevalence of engrained biases that drive prejudice towards women leaders. It is important that organisations are mindful of concealed areas of disadvantage within their promotion processes. There is also a need for legislation to remain an integral part of the promotion process; criteria need to be made objective, transparent and explicit to reduce the opportunity for stereotypical perceptions to enter promotion decisions.

Second, it is important for organisations to consider the gendered nature of social capital and to promote ways in which their female employees can develop trust, value and acceptance. Too often women opt out of networking opportunities because of competing time pressures or personal commitments. However, this research indicates the importance of networking and supportive professional relationships. Networking can be facilitated and encouraged during working hours on a personal level, with examples of possible approaches including the use of sponsors, coaches or mentors.

Third, it is important for organisations to improve employee awareness of the role that social capital can play in career progression, and to put initiatives in place to develop an understanding of this construct. It is important to make aspirational women aware of the contribution social capital can play and the obstacles that women typically face.

To conclude, this study suggests that if women do not have, or do not know how to use their social capital, they are unlikely to reach the top. This holds implications for individuals, in terms of improving strategies for personnel development; and for organisations, in terms of recognising the importance of objectivity and transparency for promotion criterion.

Natasha Abajian is a business psychologist at Deloitte Leadership and postgraduate researcher at City University London