To get a great job, you’ve got to network—make contacts, know the right people. You know the drill. But a study out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the kind of networking that works best for men isn’t enough for women.
Women need access to key kinds of information that men don’t. And how can they get it? From other women.
The study looked specifically at graduates of a prestigious MBA program, using these students' emails to map out their social networks. (The program is not named in the study to protect student privacy.) For both men and women in the program, landing highly ranked leadership positions was correlated with having “high centrality” in their peer network, meaning they are connected to other well-connected peers across their social network. These kinds of contacts provide helpful information for job seekers, like who’s hiring, what salaries look like, and what a company’s reputation is. But the researchers found that high-placing women shared an additional characteristic: In addition to high centrality that would give them access to general job information, they also had a tight-knit inner circle of other well-connected women.
That tight-knit circle of other women provides a crucial benefit to women job seekers—what the authors of the study refer to as “gender-specific private information and support.” That means insight into questions such as the following: Does this company treat women well? Are women leaders respected? Is this a hostile work environment? Is the company looking to increase its gender diversity? The study authors hypothesize that the answers to these questions help women apply to jobs that better fit them, tailor their interviews to the work culture, and negotiate better. Men, conversely, don’t need to worry so much about whether a potential new job will be a hostile or supportive fit because of their gender.
“Quite frankly, most of the jobs are still male-dominated and therefore the kind of private information that's so important to help women get ahead isn't as important to men's advancement,” says Northwestern University data scientist Brian Uzzi, the lead author on the study.
Of the top Fortune 500 companies, only 25 had women CEOs as of 2018, a meager 5 percent. Women in male-dominated fields face all sorts of hurdles, not just in breaking into positions of power, but also once they attain them. Women make less than men in their same positions, face bias around motherhood and maternity leave, and are often asked to do more “feminine” tasks (such as service or secretarial work) unrelated to their actual job, among other gender inequities.
Uzzi and his coauthors analyzed the peer networks and job placements of the 728 students, representing two class years, who graduated from the MBA program in 2006 and 2007—all of whom landed leadership jobs, so the researchers ranked the positions according to prestige and other factors. Of those students, 542 were men and 186 were women, which is roughly consistent with the researchers’ findings that women make up about a quarter of business school students nationwide.
The researchers had deep access to the students’ information, and used it to try to reconstruct their social networks. They did this by looking at the students’ emails with one another—more than 4.5 million messages total. (Apparently back in in the aughts, MBA grads mostly communicated via email.) The emails were all anonymized and stripped of their content. But by looking at who was emailing each other and how often, they could map out the connections and how strong they were.
They also had access to anonymized students records, so they could factor in GPA differences, job experience, and other relevant info. In addition, they conducted informal interviews with the students.
What they found was that men with meaningful connections to influential peers across the student body were 1.5 times more likely to be hired in a highly ranked leadership position after graduation, compared with men who were less well connected to their peers. Women with the same kind of strong connections across the student body didn’t fare as well. The women who landed the best jobs tended to have both strong connections to the student body and a tighter inner circle of at least two or three women.
Casey Fiesler, professor of social computing at the University of Colorado Boulder, says the conclusions about women relying on advice from other women jibes with her personal experience. “But we don’t know why some women have these networks and some don’t,” she notes. “Is there something about the women who sought out other women that’s just something different about them? It could mean that they are more outgoing.”
The researchers did attempt to account for sociability in their control variables, though they ranked it based on how interested students reported being in team sports. As Fiesler noted, she’s a very outgoing person but would have scored low on that question.
But overall, she and other scientists WIRED spoke to about this study called it impressive. “It’s cool, I liked it. I thought it was a very interesting piece of work, kind of a really nice combination of Big Data and randomization to get a causal inference,” says network scientist Christopher Riedl of Northeastern University, who wasn’t involved in the study.
The study’s conclusions, according to Riedl, are surprising, given that normally network scientists have found that any sort of “cliquish networks” have negative impacts on people. “They are able to quite convincingly show that these cliquish networks [for women job seekers] do add a surprisingly high amount of contacts, one degree removed, like friends of friends. I have not seen this anywhere else before,” he says.
The findings have interesting implications for how women can best approach building a supportive network for career advancement. First of all, it reinforces the idea that for women, women-only networking opportunities are important. Increasingly, there’s a trend toward affinity-group networking events and and spaces, and one takeaway from this study is that such groups are useful for women. However, Uzzi cautions that these groups also risk becoming insular, where everyone within the group only has connections to each other. That won’t help people get ahead.
This study suggests women need a women-only inner circle and a larger, well-connected network. Men don’t seem to benefit from having a same-sex inner circle at all. So, as much as the all-male bowling team might be a fun way to make friends, it likely won’t have the same impact on a man’s job search as, say, an all-women bowling league might.
Additionally, Uzzi stresses that the inner circle that so helps women has a few unique characteristics. First, the relationships are fairly intense, with lots of communication and time spent investing in each other. Second, the women in each other’s inner circles offer each other access to their broader networks, which do not overlap. “Women have to work smarter. Women have to pay more attention [than men do] to connecting to people whose third-party contacts are otherwise not connected to them already,” Uzzi adds.
So if you’re a woman reading this, you might wonder: How can I foster that kind of diverse, well-connected inner circle of supportive women? Uzzi says what led to the most successful female networks in the study was a certain amount of randomness. Women met many of the women who formed their inner circle through classes they were semi-randomly assigned to, which put them in contact with people they might otherwise not have met. The takeaway here is don’t rely only on your immediate network, like your colleagues or college friends. They’re likely to know all the same people as you. Put yourself in situations where you are more likely to meet women from other backgrounds who will give you access to networks you would never otherwise encounter. Organizations, such as the women-only workspace the Wing, have sprung up to provide exactly this.
“You need to do the standard type of networking that everyone says you need to do, but then there is something else you need to be doing,” says Riedl.
If that all sounds like a lot of extra work, that’s because it is. Uzzi agrees that fostering the kind of intense friendships that help women advance in their careers is extra effort that men don’t have to expend to get ahead. But it’s extra work that deeply matters and can have cascading effects, if the goal is to get more gender equity in corporate America, STEM professions, and academia.
When it comes to networking, Uzzi says “women need two things and men only need one, so for every one contact a man makes, a woman has to split her time between the contact that's going to give her market information and the contact who’s going to give her private information. If you've got to split the time between the two, you've got to be very smart about the kinds of choices you make.”
All of which is to say, for women, networking isn’t enough. This study suggests women have to network smarter and differently than men. It sounds exhausting. But it’s worth it.
by Emily Dreyfuss