The favor bank works – why don’t women get it?

Are women uncomfortable with the concept of the favor bank?

Paul Coelho said “The favor bank is the most powerful bank in the world, and you’ll find it in every sphere of life.”  

The unwritten and unstated business rules are male coded. Men understand that there is a favor bank and that one good turn deserves another at some point. In the corridors of power, support is a commodity which in some sectors such as politics is openly called-in and brokered. It can have a Machiavellian tone about it.

In other circumstances it’s much more benign, subtle and intangible with no ill- intent. It’s simply the stuff that makes a well-oiled networking machine function. All men know it is there. There is nothing sinister about it. They want to help each other out and they know it’s in a win/win for all.  An invitation to a golf outing, a heads up about a job opening, an introduction to a key connection, it’s all networking 101.

There is a recognised female stereotype that they are less willing to support each other than men are.  What are the reasons for this? Is it because women don’t play by the favor bank rules?  Does it mean that women don’t get the game they are in or even understand it’s there? Or should it mean that the rules need to be re-written and the favor bank closed down altogether?

Distance from other women

Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s observed that women who reach executive status can feel under pressure to distance themselves from other women.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • They want and need to prove themselves in a male environment: When a woman achieves a level of seniority statistically she will be in the minority. The behavioral norms of the group are male. Her primary goal is to fit in and prove her competence knowing that that her performance will be held to a higher standard than her peers. There is the added pressure that she will be judged more harshly than the men at the table especially if she fails.
  • They are not supported by their male peers: Research suggests that men support gender parity privately but not in public or at least not to the same degree. They also believe that adequate action is already being taken by their organisations to achieve that. Many women report being actively discouraged by their male colleagues and bosses for initiatives to support other women. Madeleine a new partner in a consultancy firm was expressly instructed to make her training initiatives gender neutral after focusing on the women in the organisation. “The disapproval was evident at a senior level and I had to face snide banter from my male peers. HR told me that I was doing too much feminist stuff and advised me to “cool it”.”   
  • Women supporting other women is not valued by the business: despite a well-publicized financial case promoting the advancement of women, it is still not a business imperative. Women’s networks are seen as either an ineffective social sop and distraction or a place to man bash. Men place no value on women coming together and a number of women buy into that too. Women’s networks are being disbanded in some organizations. When men network it is considered to have high business value. This is where the transactional approach and favor bank comes into play. Men open doors, make introductions, mentor and sponsor each other. When women network it’s perceived to be a gossip fest where very little is done and where the favor bank fails to work.

Two reasons why women don’t use the favor bank

Joelle Bryson a networking training consultant maintains that there are a number of elements that come into play.

  • Women are not transactional networkers. They don’t get the concept of the “favor bank” or understand and play the unwritten and unstated male game that if you do something for someone, they should expect a certain level of reciprocity and that is OK. Women tend to see it as manipulative. A client recently secured complimentary tickets valued at $1500 each for two contacts one male, one female to attend a major event in San Francisco. The man followed up with an invitation for lunch which led to a business introduction to his company. The woman did not respond in any way at all other than an email of thanks.

Was the woman right to assume that people should give and not expect anything in return? Joelle maintains that “It was a naïve approach and sabotages the benefits of the favor bank process. There was no reason why she couldn’t have reciprocated in some small way. It starts an alienation process.”

  • Women don’t like to ask. Women don’t like to ask for favors and wait for recognition or for someone to do something for them voluntarily. And when another woman does ask for something – they receive a negative response and are viewed as being pushy or aggressive. There is also still a small proportion of women who expect to be taken care of. Joelle talked about another client who had supported a network contact’s social media campaign to promote her product. “Her request for an introduction to her company was not even turned down but ignored. She clearly didn’t want to do it but couldn’t say no.” Women don’t like to deliver bad news or express discomfort. “They need to be liked more than men.”

To advance their careers women have to look at the favor bank through a different lens. They should see it not as a suspicious and dubious process but as an effective part of the networking. If they build up credits they should realistically expect reciprocity. This is another reason why women are always being encouraged to seek male allies. They do not think they have enough clout on their own despite being 50% of the workforce and influencing 80% of consumer decisions.  Sam Smethers CEO of the Fawcett society said:

“Despite the fact that men are overwhelmingly pro-equality a majority of people clearly believe that when it comes to the crunch, men won’t move over unless they have to.”


That needs to change.


If your organisation wants to strengthen its female talent pipeline contact 3Plus NOW



3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Career, Networking
Staff Writer: Career
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