Contemporary Leadership Advisors’ affiliated Institute for Contemporary Leadership recently conducted a study on the commonalities and differences in contributors to women’s and men’s career advancement. The study focused on a wide range of variables including intrapersonal (i.e., within the individual), social and organizational factors that underpin leadership achievement. In this blog post we will focus on one of the key differentiators we found between males and females who have successfully risen in their careers: the extent to which they have been excluded from informal networks.


Women reported being excluded from informal networks across their careers twice as often as did men. Though this finding has been reflected in previous work (e.g., Lyness & Thompson i, 2000), we want to talk briefly about why informal social contexts matter, how men’s and women’s experiences might differ at your organization and what you can do about it.


Why Informal Networks Matter


Informal networking, or socializing beyond the work context, is an indispensable component of building professional capital, which underpins one’s ability to influence, secure resources, and otherwise employ power to achieve goals. Interacting beyond the confines of a typical workday affords people the opportunity to get to know one another and share ideas in a space with relaxed professional boundaries. As a result, a tremendous amount of information sharing, often about work, occurs in these informal situations. This casual openness frequently prompts business leads or professional breaks that would not otherwise have been available. Likewise, there are also relationships at stake in these social contexts. Shared experiences and getting to know each other on a more personal level builds trust and a sense of camaraderie (“we’re on the same team”). Moreover, beyond-work socializing provides introductions to potential role models and chances to make personal connections that can later lead to sponsorship, mentorship or a professional advocate.


Failing to participate in these informal social gatherings, contrastingly, can be incredibly damaging to one’s career, filled with missed opportunities. And, if women are excluded from these contexts in twice the proportion as men, this creates a clear structural barrier to their professional advancement and paves the way for gender inequality at work.


How This Plays Out at Your Company


Consider the following situation: A group of executives finishes up a successful meeting and one participant, Mark, suggests the others come over to his home for scotch and cigars. There are five men and three women in the room, and the invitation is for everyone. Does this seem inclusive? It might – he did invite the whole group, after all. But let’s be clear, no one in the room has any doubt that “scotch and cigars” roars “old boys club.” Throw in some poker and you pretty much render a “no girls allowed” sign redundant.


We’re being facetious, of course. Mark may very well have been trying to welcome everyone to his home for an activity he finds social and entertaining. But, at the end of the day, there are certain activities that have historically been associated with exclusively male bonding. Poker, scotch and cigars, and golf are all such activities.


We are by no means suggesting that women cannot be excellent at poker or golf. We absolutely know many women who both enjoy and excel in these activates and who practice them regularly. We’re suggesting that there have traditionally been fewer women at the poker table and on the golf course than there have been men. As a result, focusing your company’s social events on these historically male-dominated engagements can be problematic. Primarily, we argue, for two reasons:


First, because women have not traditionally been as involved in these pursuits, they have likely had fewer opportunities to learn them as well as have men. Pitting women up against men on the golf course, therefore, creates a situation in which women may both feel and look less skilled or competent, perpetuating gender stereotypes and detrimental gender dynamics. Secondly, holding – or inadvertently condoning – events at your company or organization that focus on these stereotypically male-centric activities can send a message to women: You are not welcome here. You may be invited, but this is not where you belong. We think and hope that this is not the message you want to send to any of your people.


What You Can Do About It


There is one key thing we believe you can do to increase opportunities for women to break into informal social networks: Consider your audience when choosing social activities outside of work. This may seem very simple, but if our experience with clients is any indication, people can advocate for gender equality while simultaneously clicking “send” on an invitation for Cigar Night. And we aren’t saying that you can’t hold Cigar Night or that you are trying to be exclusive, but that simply by considering how your employees or colleagues might interpret a social invitation, and tweaking that invitation slightly, you can make a world of difference. You could, for example, do a wine and chocolate tasting (to include non-drinkers) rather than a scotch tasting or go bowling rather than golfing.  However, another approach – perhaps even more professionally supportive – is to bring others into the fold. If you want to engage in a round of golf, you could be intentional about using the event to welcome and involve non-players and beginners, for example, by explicitly asking them to join and providing support for them to play (e.g., including an overview of the rules and etiquette, ensuring clubs are available to non-owners, starting off with an optional lesson, and allowing people to choose to be in a beginner group – perhaps with a more experienced and willing player as a guide – or not).  


… Anyway, you get the idea. By considering the message you’re sending with your activity choice and the circumstances you’re creating by choosing any given outing, you can increase the likelihood that both men and women will attend your event and be afforded the opportunities to grow their network, make connections, develop business leads and advance their careers.

If you’re interested in discussing how these issues are at play in your company and how to address them, reach out to Contemporary Leadership Advisors at

Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D. 

Contemporary Leadership Advisors

i Lyness, K. S., & Thompson, D. E. (2000). Climbing the corporate ladder: Do female and male executives follow the same route? Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 86–101.

Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D.

Chelsea is a consulting psychologist focused broadly on leadership development and more specifically on diversity and inclusion, team building and the advancement of women leaders. Chelsea completed her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison and her B.A. at Vassar College.