In her nearly 30 years as an executive at a Fortune 100 company, my friend’s mom had a recurring lament: “If I could just use a men’s bathroom, I’d have a leg up at work.”
Networking while in close proximity to urinals may not sound like a universally appealing way to climb the corporate ladder. But across workplace cultures, women often get shut out of opportunities to bond with male colleagues—particularly their male bosses—on informal occasions, whether the event at hand is a lunch break, a weekly pick-up basketball game, an impromptu happy hour, or a chance meeting in a lavatory. In fact, 81% percent of women say that they feel excluded at work, according to a survey of 240,000 men and women across the globe by the authors of the book Work with Me: The 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women at Work.
The problem is about much more than hurt feelings. Relationships are essential to professional success, and if women don’t have the chance to get to know their managers and other influential people at work, they’re inevitably going to be held back.
A new study offers a way to quantify the professional consequences of the old boys’ club phenomenon. It finds that men’s careers advance faster than those of their female counterparts when they have a male boss, a phenomenon that the researchers said could explain one-third of the gender pay gap.
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, was posted as a working paper on the National Bureau of Economic Research. Its authors, Zoë Cullen of Harvard Business School and Ricardo Perez-Truglia at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to answer the question of how the gender of someone’s boss may affect the employee’s career trajectory.
To find out, the study looked at what happened when the staff at a large commercial bank in Asia got a new manager, drawing from data on 14,736 employees between 2015 and 2018. “We show that male employees are promoted faster after they transition from a female to a male manager,” the authors write.
Ten quarters after switching to a male boss, the male employees’ pay was about 13% higher than that of the male employees who had gone from a female manager to another female manager. In contrast, the study found, “female employees had the same career progression regardless of whether they transitioned from a female manager to a male manager or from a female manager to another female manager.”
The authors suggest that old-fashioned male schmoozing is the most likely explanation as to why men’s careers get fast-tracked when they have a male boss. For one thing, the pay advantage only showed up when male workers spent a lot of time working in close physical proximity to their male bosses. For another, survey data showed that the number of breaks male employees took with their managers went up when they switched to a male boss.
They also ruled out other possible explanations: Male managers weren’t better at retaining male employees, nor did male employees at the bank increase their effort or output under a male boss, as measured by hours worked and by revenue. The researchers also point out that the pay bump for male employees doesn’t start showing up until a year after the manager switch, which means the explanation likely has less to do with straightforward chauvinism—if male bosses simply assumed that men were better workers, presumably the male workers would start getting promotions and raises sooner.
The study also tested the theory that socialization opportunities are linked to career advancement, by looking at what happened when employees of any gender switched from a nonsmoking boss to a smoker. Sure enough, employees who also smoked hung out with their managers more than the nonsmokers, and wound up having higher promotion rates, too.
Unfortunately, the schmoozing problem is only being exacerbated in the post-#MeToo era, in which some men have confessed to actively avoiding one-on-one situations with their female employees, lest they be perceived as crossing a line or accused of inappropriate behavior. In a 2019 survey by SurveyMonkey and LeanIn.org, 60% of male managers said they were uncomfortable mentoring, socializing with, or working alone with a woman they supervise—up 32% from the previous year.
Beyond encouraging men to be better allies, the study’s authors suggest several ways that companies can counteract the preferential treatment that male bosses may give male subordinates. “Involving multiple managers in promotion decisions may make it more difficult for employees, male or female, to schmooze their way into promotions,” they note. They also recommend that companies intervene to promote more “gender-neutral” social activities, so that everyone can have an equal shot at hobnobbing.
All this may seem obvious to women who’ve been left off the invite list for golf outings and after-work whiskey tastings. But the study offers concrete evidence that the boys’ club advantage is real—which may, at the very least, be validating.