Gender and the Network Structures of Social Capital in Professional-Client Relationships

Article excerpt


Recent studies in industrialized economies document a shift in gender composition of the labor market. They report an increase in the amount of women entering the labor force and in the number securing top-level positions in organizations (Jacobs, 1992; Kanter, 1977; Reskin & Roos, 1990). In professional labor markets, organizations' efforts to hire and promote women to senior ranks have assisted gender equality, but top-ranking male professionals still outnumber women professionals across many high-status professional sectors. This social phenomenon prevails in most professions and organizational forms, including professional service firms. Gender stratification, for example, within the legal profession is very apparent, producing income differences that are more substantial than that exists in the total labor force (Hagan, 1990).

This paper proposes using social capital theory to examine the influences of gender in professional service firms. Moving beyond the intra-organizational perspective, we argue for the significance of network structures that extend across organizational boundaries. We focus specifically on gender differences in network relationships with clients and on the structural nature of the professional's social capital. We advance four propositions for future research on how individuals' network structures influence the attainment of higher income and status position in the firm. Finally, we make some suggestions on what individuals and professional service firms can do to promote more gender equality.

The increase in the number of women entering the labor force and securing top-level positions in organizations has improved gender equality in the labor market (Jacobs, 1992; Kanter, 1977; Reskin and Roos, 1990). However, professional firm's increased hiring and promotion of women has not eradicated the gender imbalance wherein top-ranking male professionals still outnumber women professionals across many of the high-status professional sectors, including the legal profession (Australian Financial Review, 2004; Kay and Hagan, 1999). Research studies document that female professionals are promoted to partner at significantly lower rates than men (Hull & Nelson, 2000; Kay, 1997; Kay & Hagan, 1998, 1999). Substantial income differences remain despite the narrowing gap during recent years (Hagan & Kay, 1995). Women also find themselves having less autonomy and are significantly less involved in decision-making on policy considerations (Hagan & Kay, 1995; Kay, 1997). Such inequalities as these have the potential to contribute to women's experience of higher levels of dissatisfaction than male colleagues (Brockman, 1992, 1996).

There has been a growing interest in examining why women professionals take home less pay and are underrepresented at the top level of the hierarchy in organizations. However, most of these research studies focus chiefly on the internal organizational perspective (Dreher & Cox, 2000). Several explanations have been offered to explain this "male-dominated phenomenon" on professionals' income and promotion differentials. Scholars have suggested that for entry into the lower level of management, women recorded less human capital in terms of not having adequate level of skills, knowledge, education, or expertise when compared to their male counterparts (Becker, 1985, 1991; Kornhauser & Revesz, 1995; Ragins, Townsend, & Mattis, 1998; Stroh, Brett, and Reilly, 1992). Developmental opportunities available for women were also found to be more limited than they were for men (Dreher & Cox, 1996; Greenhaus, Parasuraman, & Wormley, 1990).

Research has recently begun to examine the differentials in income attainment and career advancement between male and female professionals relating them to mobility in the external labor market. Brett and Stroh (1997), for instance, found that male professionals who also changed companies when changing jobs received higher compensation than compared to female professionals. …