How Job Mobility Eliminates the Gender Gap in Networks

Tuck professor Adam Kleinbaum shows that women become more powerful brokers after changing work locations.

There’s a famous quote from a 1982 Frank and Earnest cartoon that says a lot about gender equity in just a few words. Commenting on a poster for a Fred Astaire film festival, the woman in the cartoon says to her male companions, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backwards and in high heels.” The implication, which has been borne out in countless studies and statistics, is that women throughout history have had to work harder than men to succeed, often without getting their fair share of credit for it.

Professor of Business Administration Adam Kleinbaum teaches a core MBA course in organizational behavior, an elective seminar on social networks, a Global Insight Expedition to Israel, and researches social networks.

Perhaps the most prominent gender gap is in the lack of parity in pay between men and women. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women working full time, year-round are paid 83.7 percent of what men are paid. And the inequity is even larger for Black and Hispanic women. 

A separate, underappreciated disparity most likely feeds into the gender gap in pay. Researchers for decades have documented that women tend to have less advantageous networks than men do, and women don’t tend to benefit as much from their networks as do men. Part of the reason for that, researchers suspect, is that society has a biased perception of women that follows stereotypes where women are communal and warm, instead of agentic and action-oriented—qualities society associates with men. The result is that women, historically, have not been able to capitalize on their networks as much as men have. 

As a leading expert in social networks, Tuck professor Adam Kleinbaum was curious if there was a situation where this network-based gender gap could be reduced or eliminated. In a paper forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly, cowritten with Evelyn Zhang of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management and Brandy Aven of Carnegie Mellon University, Kleinbaum zeroes in on job mobility for its potential to grant women greater license to be a bridge between networks and thus benefit from networks to the same extent men do. 

Why job mobility? In prior work, Kleinbaum found that changing jobs created a unique opportunity for people to act as brokers, because they are forced to create new connections in their new role but often maintain some connections from their old role. Meanwhile, evidence from other researchers has shown that people who broker, or act as a link between disconnected networks, tend to get evaluated more favorably, promoted faster, and paid more—but only if they are men. Women who broker don’t get as much of those benefits.

To study if job mobility and brokerage has an effect on the gender gap in networks, the coauthors studied email data from a large financial services firm. The data contained information on 12,000-plus employees’ gender, sales, and work location, so the researchers could examine the coevolution of mobility, networks, and individual performance. 

“Retail banking is a great setting in which to study this,” Kleinbaum says, “because people move around a fair amount, but their job doesn’t change significantly when they move. This means there’s a lot of information and ideas that employees can obtain through their networks that help them do their job better.”

Whereas we see women being disadvantaged in networks and brokerage when they don’t change jobs, when they do change jobs both of those disadvantages are completely removed.
— Adam Kleinbaum, Professor of Business Administration

When they examined the data, the coauthors saw that women who switch branches are more likely, compared to men, to stay in touch with their colleagues from their old branch, and that those interactions are a valuable source of information that enhances their job performance. Therefore, the key finding from the paper is that job mobility eliminates the gap between men’s and women’s networks, and it eliminates the gap in how much they benefit from brokering. 

“Whereas we see women being disadvantaged in networks and brokerage when they don’t change jobs,” Kleinbaum explains, “when they do change jobs both of those disadvantages are completely removed.”

Importantly, Kleinbaum is not suggesting that women should change jobs more than men, as a way to increase gender equity. Indeed, changing jobs is a form of extra work and hardship that women have had to endure as a way to advance in an unfair workplace—akin to dancing backwards and in high heels.

“What we are suggesting is firms be proactive in recognizing there are benefits to everybody of moving jobs,” Kleinbaum says. “Those benefits include the sort of cross-pollination of ideas and information across different departments and units of the organization. If it also creates more gender equity, then that’s another good reason to do it.” 

This story originally appeared in print in the winter 2024 issue of Tuck Today magazine.