Power Connections: The informal networks of Black women

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By all accounts, African-American women have made great gains in recent years with regard to securing employment. A closer look at those gains, however, reveals few African-American women in top positions at their respective companies. Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization that helps businesses build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work, says this is due in large part to Black women’s lack of access to informal networks of influence on the job. The firm addresses these informal networks in its study “Connections That Count: The Informal Networks of Women of Color in the United States.” 

Catalyst held more than 50 focus groups and interviews and collected data from 1,735 African-American, Latina and Asian women professionals and managers at thirty Fortune 1000 companies for its study. The report covers the different networking strategies of these women and offers recommendations for CEOs, managers and human resources executives. According to its findings, African-American women make up 5.8 percent of the labor pool, but only 0.9 percent of these women hold corporate executive roles. The number is even smaller for Asian (0.4 percent) and Latina (0.3 percent) women. “Those women of color who actually make their way into top positions often report they rely on a mentor, a sponsor, or an influential network of colleagues to guide them to important career assignments and provide needed advice similar to themselves,” the report says. The question then becomes: How do women of color, particularly African-American women, form an informal network that will help them reach top-tier positions?

Network Strategies
The report focuses on two types of network strategies: “blending in” and “sticking together.” The first involves forming relationships with people in power within the organization and generally includes whites and/or males among its members, while the latter encourages connections with those similar to oneself in race and ethnicity. According to the study, more than two-thirds of African-American women use a “sticking together” strategy, whereas Asian and Latina women overwhelmingly embrace the “blending in” strategy. Only 29 percent of the members of the informal networks of African-American women were white, the study shows. “In one positive result of the ‘sticking together’ strategy, higher-performing African-American managers tended to have more same-race/ethnicity ties in their informal networks than did low-performing African-American managers.”

The Insider Effect
Based on the report’s findings, Catalyst says that “the more a woman’s network members are part of insider groups—usually whites, men or colleagues—the more attached she will feel to her organization.” Specifically for African-American women, it says, the greater the number of colleagues in their informal networks, the higher the level of commitment to the organization. Ninety-two percent of African-American women with high numbers of colleagues from the same organization in their networks said they were willing to do more than what was required of them for their company.

Recommended Initiatives 
CEOs and managers can implement initiatives to make the corporate environment even more inclusive and rewarding, the report says. Those initiatives include putting in place formalized mentoring and networking programs to connect African-American women with key influential people within the company, facilitating a heightened awareness and understanding of their similarities and differences and encouraging employees to embrace a variety of ways in which to build middle-ground relationships.

Catalyst also suggests that managers immediately address negative behavior as it occurs, such as when a woman of color is interrupted during a meeting or when a lower-level employee disregards her position of authority.