by Catalyst

As many in the business community are aware, the demographics of both the talent pool and consumers are shifting. Because there are many more women and people of color in the labor pool than in the past, it is critical for business organizations to expand traditional recruitment to attract the diversity of talent that exists. Fostering a diverse and inclusive environment helps companies increase productivity by tapping top talent, motivating employees to do their personal best, and maximizing the value of diverse teams regarding innovation, creativity, and quality.

To this end, the business community needs to understand an important component of its talent pool: women of color. In Connections that Count: The Informal Networks of Women of Color in the United States, Catalyst investigates different networking strategies used by African American women, Asian women, and Latinas, and how those strategies affect their rates of promotion and organizational commitment.

Challenges for Women of Color in Forming Informal Networks

Because corporate environments typically do not reflect the behavioral norms common to the cultural backgrounds of women of color, these women may have to go to great lengths to adjust to the corporate environment and to network effectively. However, there are few women or people of color in influential positions at most business organizations. Therefore, women of color who want to make connections with others with whom they have little in common face difficulties that disadvantage them. These difficulties drive women of color to form networks using different strategies.

“Blending In” Strategy

Some women of color blend in by seeking a network that reflects the characteristics of those in power. In U.S. organizations, this typically means white and/or male colleagues. “Blending in” can also mean choosing to network with colleagues from the same company, rather than with people from outside of the organization. A motivation for choosing to go to colleagues for job advice is that those who know the organization will likely provide better advice on the organization than others.

“Sticking Together” Strategy

Some women of color build networks composed mainly of people of their own race/ethnicity and/or gender. One motivation is the assumption that greater similarity between an informal network member and a woman of color will lead to better advice and support. Another motivation for networking with similar others may be the difficulty involved in forming relationships with dissimilar others, especially those from dominant groups such as whites. Depending on the work environment, it may be difficult to form relationships at all with dissimilar colleagues, which would then lead a woman of color to turn to similar colleagues or people from outside the work organization for advice.

Different Women Use Different Strategies to Different Effect

By surveying more than 1,700 women of color from 30 Fortune 1000 companies, Catalyst found that there seems to be a continuum of usage of strategies from “blending in” to “sticking together” for Asian women, Latinas, and African American women.

  • Asian women had the highest number of whites and men in their networks.
  • Latinas had a high number of whites in their networks, but more than one-half of their networks were women.
  • African American women had the highest number of other AfricanAmericans in their networks, and also the highest number of women of their racial/ethnic group. The different strategies had different effects on each group’s promotion rates and organizational commitment.

For Asian women:

  • Having men in their networks was positively linked to organizational commitment.
  • Having whites and colleagues in their networks was positively linked to promotion rates.

For African American women:

  • Having colleagues in their networks was positively linked to organizational commitment.
  • Having women, particularly other African American women, in their networks was positively tied to promotion rates

For Latinas:

  • Having colleagues in their networks was positively linked to organizational commitment.
  • Nothing we measured about Latinas’ network characteristics was linked to their rates of promotion.

What Can Companies Do to Help Women of Color?

Unless companies take proactive steps to create a more inclusive work environment, they risk losing and/or not developing potential top talent. Through the creation of formalized mentoring and networking programs, there are clear opportunities to:

  • Facilitate contacts between women of color and key influential leaders within a company.
  • Institute and/or expand formal networks.
  • Increase the recognition of competence and potential of women of color, thereby advancing a greater portion of talent to positions of leadership throughout the organization.
  • Eliminate cultural norms that give one group an advantage over others. This can be done through identification, by a diverse team, of critical norms in the dominant culture; leadership commitment to change/lead change; intense communication; modeling by influential champions at every level; formal guidelines where appropriate; and enforcing accountability.
  • Increase understanding of differences and similarities through education and informal dialogues, one-on-one and in groups.


This Catalyst article was featured on page 14 in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal