Before I apply for a job at a new company, I always make a point to reach out to women or other acquaintances who work there for a vibe check.
My questions usually boil down to “Do people like me have a track record of succeeding at this company? Is time off respected? Is this boss known for championing people who look like me?”
The honest answers I have received have saved me from managers and co-workers I am relieved to not work with and opportunities that would not suit my needs. A new study published by the journal Academy of Management Discoveries gives my job hunting strategy a name: It’s called “scouting,” and it’s extra emotional labor that women in particular are known to undertake before officially applying for jobs.
Everyone schmoozes for jobs. But women also utilize scouts.
For their study, researchers Elena Obukhova of McGill University and Adam M. Kleinbaum of Dartmouth College observed how MBA students used their school’s alumni database when networking for jobs. They found that female students reached out to at least as many men and to significantly more women alumni than their male classmates.
In follow-up interviews, they found out why. Both men and women engaged in schmoozing ― that is, networking “to explore career opportunities, including learning about industries, roles, and career strategies, to identify job leads, to obtain interview help, referrals and even advocacy,” as the study put it. But only women were doing the additional step of scouting with other women about workplace gender dynamics and parental support levels.
Kleinbaum told HuffPost he defined scouting as “a pre-emptive information gathering in order to figure out which employers will offer those fair opportunities” to women. Whisper networks have long been a way for women to warn each other in one-on-one conversations about sexual harassers at work, but these conversations are also used between women to protect each other from bad jobs.
“If women don’t scout, or don’t scout effectively, there’s a chance they might end up in jobs where employers either discriminate or don’t provide them the kind of opportunities they want and expect,” said Kleinbaum.
“If there are issues with how women are treated differently from men, [women in the office] are going to be real with you about it. It’s harder for a man to do if they’re not directly experiencing it.”
The concept resonated with feminist career coach Cynthia Pong, who focuses on career transitions for women of color. “We’ve been burned before by bad situations, and we know that you’re not necessarily getting the truth through an interview process, or through official channels, or through what’s out there on the first page of Google,” Pong said.
The female students interviewed in the study said they didn’t contact male alumni for scouting purposes because they assumed men lacked the insight and willingness to talk honestly about gender dynamics in their workplaces.
“If there are issues with how women are treated differently from men, [women in the office] are going to be real with you about it. It’s harder for a man to do if they’re not directly experiencing it,” one MBA student said. Another student frankly noted that, “If I am reaching out to a gentleman, for better or for worse, I feel more under the microscope.”
Why weren’t men in the study asking scouting questions, too? Kleinbaum suggested that stigma may keep them quiet. “For women, I think the need to figure out this information beforehand is stronger, such that women take that risk and ask those questions. But for men, they worry about the stigma about asking in advance,” Kleinbaum said.
Research has shown that both men and women equally value work-life balance for parenting, but men are seen as less masculine and can be sidelined at work for seeking such accommodations.
Obukhova suggested that if men want to be better scouts for women, one action they can take is to signal their willingness to talk about gender dynamics to female job seekers by mentioning how they have seen it play out in their company. That way, Obukhova said, they provide an opening for a women to follow up if she chooses.
Scouting helps up front, but it comes with a sacrifice of time and energy for women who do it.
By scouting, women can gain valuable knowledge and a network of professionals who can commiserate about and relate to their careers. Pong said she typically advises her clients to do scouting before actively interviewing, “because ... they are more likely to be candid, they know you’re not purely talking to try to get a good word in.”
“Women are networking harder for the same outcomes, that's the bottom line.”
But there is valuable time lost for scouting. In their study, Obukhova and Kleinbaum noted that this “discrimination insurance” can be costly, because it redirects time and effort from the main task of finding a job. Pong said scouting “can be a real slog, and unfortunately that ends up hurting women again, because you could have had X number of conversations, but you had to dig deeper on three, and so you couldn’t cover five.”
Ultimately, the researchers found that men and women in their study got jobs at the same rate and were roughly equally satisfied with the jobs they got.
“Women are networking harder for the same outcomes, that’s the bottom line,” Obukhova told HuffPost. She said she does not want scouting to be a prescriptive takeaway from the study: “If we go and [say], ‘Hey guys, you should network harder,’ I think that puts the onus of fixing a broken situation on women.”
Instead, scouting is a symptom of a larger problem that needs to be addressed.
“People engage in this behavior as a way of combating the systemic discrimination that they face,” Kleinbaum said. “The best thing that we as a society can do is to try to get rid of the systemic discrimination.”
For employers and workers in positions of power, that would mean creating and enforcing environments and policies in which everyone is given equal opportunities to succeed.