Do Men and Women Network Differently?

April 9, 2019

A recent study of new male and female MBAs discussed in the Harvard Business Review reveals interesting gender differences in social networks—both the makeup of those groups and the value they provide their members. It will come as no surprise that while both men and women credit their social networks with aiding professional advancement, women need a few different kinds of support to achieve the career goals that come to men through a traditional-style network.

While men benefit from being connected to many “hubs” (that is, people who have lots of contacts across industries), those connections alone were not enough to propel women into high-paying executive positions. In their case they also needed a circle of trusted female contacts. As researcher Brian Uzzi put it, “because women seeking positions of executive leadership often face cultural and political hurdles that men typically do not, they benefit from an inner circle of close female contacts that can share private information about things like an organization’s attitudes toward female leaders, which helps strengthen women’s job search, interviewing, and negotiation strategies.”

As Broadsheet’s Kisten Bellstrom points out, this sounds a lot like the “whisper networks” of #MeToo. Women seek the counsel of other women they trust to warn them about potential dangers, but also, in the case of career advancement, to strategize ahead of interviews and conversations about compensation. It turns out the instinct to do this is not just habit but has real impact on women’s career paths: Women who were in the top quartile of centrality (meaning they were at the center of a robust network of hubs) and “had a female-dominated inner circle of 1-3 women landed leadership positions that were 2.5 times higher in authority and pay than those of their female peers lacking this combination.”

Maybe the study’s best takeaway is that women should be networking smarter, not harder. Women lawyers hear the constant advice to network, network, network, but not all lunches and cocktail hours are created equal. Some tips:

  • Identify and connect with people who are connected to multiple networks.

  • Get outside the same groups of like-minded and like-experience people. Diversity will bring fresh ideas and pathways.

  • Broaden a trusted inner circle that feels too interconnected. The ideal inner circle includes women connected to networks that do not overlap because that generates more insights and opportunities.

As with so many things, women must work harder and in more complex ways to get access to the same opportunities as men, and that needs to change. The best way to make that change is to get more women into positions of power, and smart networking is the first step.