Research: Men and Women Need Different Kinds of Networks to Succeed

We know that social networks are critical to professional advancement. We also know that men are more likely to rise to leadership positions.

This makes one wonder: Is there a difference between the networks of successful male and female leaders?

Recent research I conducted with collaborators Yang Yang and Nitesh V. Chawla suggests there is. We studied what types of networks helped new male and female MBAs land executive leadership positions. We found that men benefit not so much from size of network but from being central in the MBA student network—or connected to multiple “hubs”, or people who have a lot of contacts across different groups of students.

Women benefited in terms of post-MBA job placement from being central in the network too; but to achieve the executive positions with the highest levels of authority and pay they also had to have an inner circle of close female contacts, despite having similar qualifications to men including education and work experience.

Why the difference?

Being central gives male or female students quick access to varied job market information—such as who’s hiring, what salaries are offered at different firms, how long it takes to get promoted, how to optimize their resumes—that is public but tends to be scattered widely among students in the class.  Being central puts dispersed information in ready reach.

However, 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.  While men had inner circles in their networks too – contacts that they communicated with most – we found that the gender composition of males’ inner circles was not related to job placement.

The Power of Direct Placement

Winning placement into executive leadership positions directly out of graduate school benefits men and women alike. Early-career women, especially, can use this route to sidestep longstanding labor-market challenges, including stereotyping and discrimination, which result in lower pay, lesser advancement opportunities, and a higher rate of dropping out of the labor market altogether.

But little is known about the links between graduate school and placement into these positions.  We wanted to understand whether one’s network enables MBAs to find the right opportunities, setting the stage for successful careers.

To connect features of social networks at school to job placement success, we analyzed 4.5 million anonymized email correspondences among a subset of all 728 MBA graduates (74.5% men, 25.5% women) in the classes of 2006 and 2007 at a top U.S. business school. We measured job placement success by the level of authority and pay each graduate achieved after school.

Men Need Centrality

We found that the social networks of men and women MBA students affected their post-graduation job placement.

Men who had the most centrality (top quartile) in the MBA student network tended to perform best in the job market, securing jobs with more authority and pay (1.5 times greater) than their peers with the least centrality (bottom quartile).  High centrality drove their placement even after controlling for individual characteristics, such as undergraduate GPA, test scores, sociability, country of origin, and work experience.

Why? Centrality is positively correlated with accessing job market information. Even though much of this is publicly available online, it can be much faster to get the information you need from different MBA studentswho have contacts across various groups of students who are familiar with employers you’re interested in.

Women Need Dual Networks

Our results suggest that successful women have high centrality like successful men, but they differ in that they also maintained a close inner circle of female contacts. Although we could not review the content of email messages, we believe that this close inner circle of women likely provides critical private information on job opportunities and challenges.

This private information might be about whether a firm has equal advancement opportunities for men and women, or whether an interviewer might ask about plans to start a family and the best way to respond.

Women who were in the top quartile of centrality 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. While women who had networks that most resembled those of successful men (i.e., centrality but no female inner circle) placed into leadership positions that were among the lowest in authority and pay.

Women’s success also depended on a certain kind of inner circle.  The best inner circles for women were those in which the women were closely connected to each other but had minimal contacts in common.  For example, if Jane is a second-year MBA student whose inner circle includes classmates Mary, Cindy, and Reshma, but these three women each have networks with few overlapping contacts, then Jane will benefit not only from her three inner-circle-mates but also their non-overlapping contacts.

Interestingly, we found that the gender composition of men’s networks didn’t matter for job placement.  This pattern most likely occurs because men don’t need the kind of gender-related private information that women need to navigate male-dominated professions. Despite persistent perceptions of the Old Boys’ Club in work settings, we found no evidence for it in our study of graduate school networks.

Network Smarter, Not Harder

Our findings suggest that women can benefit from taking a strategic approach to networking.

First seek quality over quantity in your overall network. Remember: centrality, in this context, is less a function of how many people you know but who those people are.  Identifying and connecting with people who are connected to multiple networks is a key strategy.

Learn more at Harvard Business Review.