Male-to-male schmoozing at work could account for up to a third of the gender pay gap, according to a study published late last year.
In their working paper The Old Boys' Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap,  Zoë B Cullen of Harvard Business School and Ricardo Perez-Truglia of Anderson School of Management examine rises and promotions at a large, Asian bank with almost 15,000 staff.
From January 2015 to December 2018, the researchers tracked the effects on employees’ pay grades of teams switching from female to male managers. They found that, in the 10 quarters prior to switches, the evolution of male and female salaries was evenly paced. But in the 10 quarters following switches, the pay grades of male employees grew at a much faster rate.
The researchers write: “One natural family of explanations, which have nothing to do with socialisation, are based on pre-existing in-group biases. For example, male managers may have biased beliefs about the productivity of other men, they may care more about the well-being of male employees, or they may seek to pay the favour forward for the men who have helped them in the past.”
However, they note: “There is a second family of channels, which involve socialisation. For example, male managers may become emotionally attached to the male employees over time, and thus feel increasing pressure to promote their male employees. Perhaps male employees use [those] face-to-face interactions to gain the manager’s sympathy and schmooze their way into promotions.”
They point out: “Socialising with the manager may make the accomplishment and effort of the employee more salient to the manager, thus making the employee more likely to be rewarded with a promotion. Male employees may use the time spent with their manager to claim credit and engage in self-promotion. Male employees may get favourable treatment from the managers by getting assigned tasks that are more conducive to promotions. It is also possible that male managers are more willing to get more involved in working alongside with, or training, their male subordinates.”
To address these issues, the paper recommends, “Involving multiple managers in promotion decisions may make it more difficult for employees, male or female, to schmooze their way into promotions.”
Would that be enough to help organisations level the playing field?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I don’t think ’schmoozing’ is really the right word for what’s going on here – although I can certainly see why the researchers chose it, as a means of generating an attention-grabbing headline. But I think what we’re talking about here are those informal conversations that serve to seal relationships between people; the social glue that enables people to bond and ensures that organisations work cohesively.”
Cooper explains: “As the work of linguist Deborah Tannen  shows, there are stark differences between how men and women use conversation. And recent research from the Harvard Business Review pointed out that men are much more likely than women to engage in self-promotion.  All of those socialisation practices seem to make men feel that they’re making a meritocratic decision by promoting other males when, in fact, the basis for those decisions is flawed. So, having transparent criteria in place for how those decisions are made – and involving other people in the process, so it’s not just about the leverage obtained through one-to-one relationships – would be a great start.”
However, she notes: “At the same time, you don’t want your criteria to be overtly formulaic. The moment you start trying to introduce tables, templates and grids, the more difficult aspects of evaluating people for promotions tend to get left out. With that in mind, perhaps the best way to guard against the effects of this sort of gender bias is to a) measure promotional decisions on a rolling basis so they are properly accounted for, and b) ensure that there is a balance among the decision makers themselves.”
She adds: “It’s a challenging problem. You don’t want to undermine line managers. You want them to be able to manage and reward their staff as they see fit. But unless there is a system that enables managers to properly articulate and explain the reasons behind their promotional decisions, then these sorts of unconsciously biased decisions will continue to be made.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on conversation