When Men Schmooze, Women Lose — How Male Bonding Tilts the Playing Field and Hurts Business

February 18, 2020

Photo of two men playing golf

New research suggests that bigger paychecks and smaller restroom lines are not the only advantages that men have over women. Men get promoted more quickly than woman, and a recently released paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap” pointed to male bonding as one of the causes for this disparity.

Zoë Cullen from Harvard Business School and Ricardo Perez-Truglia from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management say the “male-to-male advantage” in promotions may account for nearly 40% of the gender pay gap. Zoë and Ricardo studied the dynamics underlying employee-manager relationships at a large multinational bank in Asia. They found that men assigned to male managers were promoted faster than men assigned to female managers. Women, on the other hand, were promoted at the same rate regardless of whether their manager was male or female.

The pair of researchers also examined performance and found that the higher rate of promotion happened even though there was no increase in revenue or hours worked.

So, what’s going on? The two scholars cite “suggestive evidence” that accelerated promotions are due to socialization.

“We show that these manager effects are present only if the employee works in close proximity to the manager,” they write in the paper’s abstract. “We use survey data to show that, after transitioning to a male manager, male employees spend more time with their managers.”

Beyond counterproductive policies banning fraternization, what can companies do? We have five tips — three of them suggested by Zoë and Ricardo — for how to reduce the impact of male bonding on internal promotions:

1. Involve multiple managers in promotion decisions

With survey after survey of U.S. workers showing that most employees don’t believe promotions are based on merit, having several managers participate could change the perception of what’s happening — the company really is trying to get it right — and improve employee engagement.

The hiring process at most companies involves multiple interviewers and assessors, working together to make sure they get it right. So, wouldn’t it make sense to get several perspectives before promoting someone? A promotion panel would diminish the adverse impact of manager-employee social relationships and help keep the focus on performance and potential.

Another way to temper favoritism is to implement a calibration process as part of your performance reviews. After a manager gives their reports an initial rating, they meet with other managers and look at all the first-round ratings. This forces them to recalibrate, both up and down, to improve fairness. Google, GE, and Goldman Sachs are among the companies that have embraced this process to decrease bias and increase employee belief in its fairness.

2. Standardize your review process to focus on objective measures

A few years ago, the internet domain registrar GoDaddy realized that even as it had become a tech industry leader for hiring women, it was still lagging in equitable evaluations, promotions, and compensation. Not many of their female engineers were advancing to leadership roles. It turned out that the men at GoDaddy were being evaluated on their skills, the women, on their style.

The company decided to reconsider the way it evaluated and reviewed employees. At the heart of the changes GoDaddy put in place was the adoption of evaluation scorecards, which use questions designed to objectively measure effectiveness and performance against goals. A survey of company leaders found that, as a bonus, the new scorecards made reviews simpler and quicker.

IBM also studied companies that have been proactive about moving toward gender equality in leadership and found that a critical step in that effort was using the same metrics when evaluating the performance of men and women and applying them equitably. In short, make sure reviews are really about substance over style, about performance not friendship.

3. Level the opportunities for employees to connect with managers

Across countries and cultures, women shoulder a larger share of the domestic chores and have less time for after-hours schmoozing, whether that’s having a beer or playing golf with the boss. But Zoë and Ricardo’s study shows that the male bonding goes on without ever leaving the office. For example, they show a large correlation between accelerated promotions and male managers and male employees who take smoking breaks together.


Related: LinkedIn’s Head of Diversity Shares Her Playbook for Creating a More Inclusive Workforce


When selecting team bonding events, pass on the weekend paintball excursion and find activities that fit into the workday and don’t exclude employees who have family obligations. Look for events that everyone can embrace, and remember that even an onsite happy hour may cut out people who don’t drink alcohol for religious, cultural, health, or other reasons. And don’t forget to order swag for your events in women’s sizes as well as men’s.

4. Create mentorships for female employees

The best place to look for your company’s future female leaders may be right in your own buildings.

“Organizations need to make sure managers have the know-how to support women’s careers development,” says the 2017 Women in the Workplace report. “They can also invest in formal mentorship and sponsorship programs to provide additional guidance.”

For example, Sodexo developed a formal yearlong leadership and mentorship program that stresses cross-gender and cross-ethnicity connections between the company’s junior staff and managers.

Bank of America offers a 10-month Women’s Executive Development Program that includes assessments, development sessions, and executive sponsorship. And IBM has developed an Elevate for Tech initiative that aims to accelerate the professional development of high-potential women outside North America through education, experience, and exposure.

5. Develop a diversity scorecard that tracks promotions by gender

Like many other companies, Salesforce has discovered that good intentions alone will not lead to the diverse workforce to which it aspires. So, Salesforce introduced a diversity scorecard for leaders who have more than 500 team members — or who have a “large ability” to hire. The scorecard not only looks at the number of women and underrepresented minorities who were hired into the organization over the previous month, it looks at the number of each who left or, importantly, were promoted.

Molly Ford, the senior director of global equality programs at Salesforce, calls the scorecard “an early-warning system.”

“A leader can’t say, ‘Wow, I didn’t promote a woman last year,’ right?” Molly says. “You have the data right in front of you.”

A regular diversity scorecard that tracks the gender of who gets promoted can shed light on patterns of male favoritism — and female exclusion.

Final thoughts: Countering the male-bonding effect and promoting more women into leadership is good for business

The advantage accrued by male employees in socializing with their male bosses does not serve businesses well. It’s time that companies place more importance on what you know than on who you know.

Research has shown that having more women in senior executive roles increases profitability and creativity (more patents!) and even boosts an organization’s esteem. Likewise, a study by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that companies that were at the forefront of pushing for gender equality in leadership outperformed their competitors in profitability, revenue growth, innovation, and employee satisfaction.

The Old Boys’ Club concept — originally used to talk about how the British upper crust attended the same circle of exclusive private schools and now used to describe any network that serves to preserve the status of a privileged group — has been around for a long time. Now is the time to relegate it to history.

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.

* Photo by Aaron Thomas on Unsplash