Smart Networking for Women in Commodities

Three Strategies for Success

By Patrícia Luís-Manso – Head of Sugar and Biofuels Analytics at S&P Global Platts

Women are underrepresented in the commodity trading business, in particular in sugar trading. Amongst the top trading houses that control 85 percent of the total sugar traded in the world, less than 10 percent of physical traders are women; and none of them holds a senior trading leadership position. This has led to me to ask whether differences in the way women and men develop and use their career networks could explain this underrepresentation.

Networks are essential to career development because they give access to information and knowledge, as well as to decision makers, influence, endorsement and reputation, emotional support and recognition.

Both male and female traders that I interviewed acknowledge that developing and nurturing career networks matter, and both invest in significant effort in doing so. Based on the interviews, I identified the structure of male and female traders’ networks and their networking behaviours.  I concluded that career networks of men and women sugar traders are similar in terms of size and diversity. Moreover, female sugar traders tend to engage in networking behaviours to a similar extent (frequency) compared to their male colleagues.

However, they differ in other aspects—ways that may be deterring women from accessing and ascending in this profession. Key differences refer to the proportion of high-status individuals and to the proportion of strong ties. Women sugar traders’ networks tend to have less high-status individuals than men’s and to have a lower proportion of strong ties.

Moreover, even though female sugar traders engage to a similar extent as their male colleagues in professional activities (conferences and seminars, for example), and in community projects, other differences came to surface. First and foremost, female sugar traders engage in activities that increase internal visibility less often than their male colleagues. This could be going to lunch with their supervisor, or being on highly visible committees at work. Instead, women tend to engage more often than their male colleagues in maintaining contacts and socializing activities. 

Based on these findings, how can women close the wide gap in the trading profession? I recommend three strategies.

STRATEGY ONE: Nurture strong ties to strategic partners. 

Female sugar traders’ networks have a smaller proportion of very strong ties compared to a male network. In today’s highly connected world, weak ties may be less relevant for career advancement.

The intensity of the relationship with other individuals in the network does matter enormously as a source of social capital. For career advancement, resources like endorsements, validations and sponsorships that come from emotionally strong ties may prove more effective for female career advancement than access to novel information from weaker ties.

STRATEGY TWO: Participate more in high-visibility activities.

Other studies have highlighted the fact that women need high visibility to build legitimacy. Excellent performance and solid human capital are necessary, yet not sufficient, conditions for women to advance to managerial and leadership positions.

STRATEGY THREE: Be more selective in terms of networking: quality over quantity.

Time is limited and women already engage in several networking behaviours. The key is to become more selective, and to think more about impact. This means that every time you participate in a network you should be prepare in advance to maximise impact.

Note: These findings are based on my final project presented as part of the Diploma in Organizational Leadership from the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford (October 2018) The title of the assignment was Social capital and career development: is there a gender gap? Evidence from the Sugar Trading industry.

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