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 MPIfG - Featured Research



Careers for Women
Not Every Network Is a Guarantor of Professional Success

Mark Lutter

Networking is important to a career in many fields today. But the type of network and its membership structure can be crucial in determining whether a person is successful or not, as demonstrated by a study published recently in the leading international journal American Sociological Review. Women, in particular, need to choose their networks carefully if they are to keep up with their male colleagues. MPIfG researcher Mark Lutter turned to ‘big data’ for his innovative study, analysing the enormous volume of data contained in the Internet Movie Database, IMDb.
Do women benefit from professional networks and contacts with colleagues in a different way to men? Women enjoy far less professional success in flexible industries characterised by projects and teamwork if they’ve built up their career within homogeneous networks; their success is significantly greater, on the other hand, if they work more often within looser, more diverse groups – with members of different social and cultural backgrounds. In that case they have the same career opportunities as their male colleagues. This is one of the findings from a current study by Dr. Mark Lutter, head of the “Transnational Diffusion of Innovation” Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (MPIfG). Looking at the market for actors in the American film industry, the study proves an idea that had long been suspected: the fact that women and men enjoy different levels of career success depending on the relationship networks they uphold.
“Women enjoy a successful career over a longer timespan if they work mainly in teams whose members differ from each other,” the sociologist notes. In such cases, women benefit from the diversity and openness of their relational networks. By contrast, the career opportunities for actresses are in danger of dwindling if they work in homogeneous teams. If their networks also feature a large proportion of men in senior positions – directors and producers, for instance – or if the women work in male-dominated film genres, the risk is even greater. The effect is even amplified for actresses still in the early stages of their career.

« Women enjoy a successful career over a longer timespan if they work
mainly in teams whose members differ from each other. »

For the purposes of his study, Lutter analysed the career data of about 100,000 film professionals in the American film industry with more than a million performances in almost 400,000 film productions. The data originated from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), which contains details of all films produced since the advent of cinematography plus information on all of the actors and actresses involved and the networks within which they operated. In order to describe tightly knit networks, Lutter took all of the film productions and used a measure of cohesion to compute the proportion of cliques that occurred repeatedly within the production teams. He found that women who worked more frequently in these cohesive teams with a high proportion of repeatedly-occurring cliques were significantly less successful in their careers than men. Using distance measures, Lutter calculated the average similarity of all team members based on the background experience of each person. Here, he found that women enjoyed a longer career by working more often in teams whose members were as dissimilar as possible, in other words teams featuring a very broad range of individual diversity.

« Women may well enjoy a much lower degree of active support from
mentors than men. »

“Women suffer from close networks because they may well enjoy a much lower degree of active support from mentors than men, and their professional networks also give them access to fewer contacts in positions of power,” Lutter concludes. As such, given the tightly knit networks that prevail, they are excluded from important sources of information about future projects. This tends to further amplify the disadvantages for women resulting from other factors.
That is particularly true for project-based labor markets in which jobs tend to be obtained through informal channels and personal networks. “So rather than relying on relationships within their immediate environment, women should focus on external and diverse networks of relationships,” says Lutter. “By and large, they should take a more strategic, considered approach to their decisions concerning future projects if they want their career to benefit.”


Study Results of Interest for Other Job Markets

The study results are of interest for other job markets, too. “In this day and age, work very often takes place in project teams, the film industry being a prime example,” Lutterexplains. “Those involved in filmmaking move along from project to project, working together for a limited period of time and then going their separate ways – like many freelancers in the creative professions, but also not unlike many people working for larger corporations.” Lutter’s research findings demonstrate the strategies by which women can increase their visibility in these job markets. Employers keen on advancing women’s careers can draw from the study various suggestions on the composition and structure of project teams. Generally, in times when hierarchical structures within companies are increasingly being replaced by teams and projects, the study helps to further an understanding of the effects of networks on career outcomes and what actions can be taken to increase job chances for otherwise disadvantaged labor market groups.

Mark Lutter is head of the research group on „Transnational Diffusion of Innovation“ and a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne. His research focuses on social structures in economic life. He studied sociology, psychology, and statistics. He received his Doctorate from University of Duisburg-Essen and has held visiting fellowships at Harvard University and ETH Zurich.
Research Interests: economic sociology; sociology of markets; social stratification; organizational sociology; political sociology; statistical modeling; survey research; sociology of diffusion.

Selected publications

Careers for Women: Not Every Network Is a Guarantor of Professional Success. In: Max Planck Society online | Research News | March 12, 2015.

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