Many career-advice articles recommend that, in order to succeed in a man’s world, women should act like men.
Among other things, that may mean establishing relationships with male colleagues. For instance, one business journal urges women to “get in the game” by golfing with male coworkers, while a careers website proclaims that “beer is for bonding,” advising women to socialize with male peers over drinks. Engaging in the same networking activities as men, the logic seems to go, will increase women’s exposure to work opportunities.
But a new study suggests this advice isn’t quite right. While it’s true that highly connected women tend to land better jobs, the most successful women also have something they cannot get through “beers with the boys”: close ties with female peers.
The researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing social-network and job-placement data for graduates of an MBA program. They found an important gender difference: for men, the most significant factor affecting job status after graduation was how “central” they were in their networks—that is, how many highly connected people they have relationships with.
Successful women also tended to be more central, but that alone was not enough to land them a top job. The most successful women often had a tight-knit circle of female colleagues as well.
The reason for this difference may come down to the types of information that men versus women need to succeed. Presumably, having numerous connections provides ready access to what the researchers call “public information,” such as which companies are hiring and which types of candidates they’re seeking. For men, that alone may be enough to land a good job. “Men really need a network that’s going to maximize their access and exposure to market information,” says study coauthor Brian Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.
Women, however, “need the same thing men need and one thing more,” Uzzi says. Specifically, women need “private information,” which may include insider tips about a company’s leadership culture and politics, or hints about how to make an impression in a male-dominated industry, for example.
However, women are only likely to put faith in such private information when it comes from trusted contacts with whom they have established relationships. Furthermore, only fellow women can provide the sensitive, gender-specific information that will be useful in a career context—hence the benefit of having connections who are both close and are women.
But there is a caveat, the researchers warn: if the contacts in a woman’s network do not have sufficiently diverse networks of their own, she may find herself in an echo chamber, hurting her chances of success.
Uzzi and his coauthors, Kellogg research assistant professor Yang Yang and Nitesh Chawla of the University of Notre Dame, wanted to know how, exactly, social networks influence career trajectories, especially for individuals pursuing leadership roles.
After all, most graduates of MBA programs are highly qualified, with similar test scores, GPAs, and work experience, Uzzi says. “The men and women should look fairly indistinguishable on paper.”
But the researchers suspected that the connections students form in school would not be so identical.
They knew that many connections between students were weak, “arm’s-length” links: these students wouldn’t exchange deeply personal information, but they might chat about job opportunities and typical salaries.
Other connections, however, were stronger, “embedded” relationships. These exist between close friends who share sensitive, subjective information, such as details about what it’s like to work at a particular firm, or (for women) tips for getting ahead in a male-dominated industry.
Uzzi and colleagues wanted to know how different kinds of relationships influenced career success, and whether the answer varied for men and women.
To investigate, the team obtained anonymized data on alumni who graduated from a top MBA program in 2006 and 2007. The data included the students’ entrance test scores, undergraduate major, GPA, work experience, nationality, and gender, as well as each person’s starting salary upon graduation.
The researchers normalized salaries by region and industry, then used the salaries to assign each job a ranking.
Uzzi’s team also obtained anonymized information on more than 4.5 million emails sent between the students during their time in the program. The researchers could not read the messages, but they could see which students were communicating with one another and when.
The researchers used an algorithm to determine who was in a student’s social network based on their emails. They then classified each student-to-student relationship as strong or weak based on a number of characteristics gleaned from the emails. For instance, if two people communicated more than would be expected by chance, regularly exchanged emails on weekends, and replied to each other quickly, they probably had a strong tie. Meanwhile, a pair that emailed less frequently likely had a weak connection.
The team also measured how central each person was in their network. Uzzi notes that in this study, centrality does not mean the number of contacts a person has, but rather the number of highly connected individuals they communicate with. The distinction is important, he says, because a person with relatively few contacts can still be highly central if their contacts have lots of connections. “Even a small network can provide a wide reach,” he says.
Finally, the researchers counted how many strong and weak bonds each graduate had, and the gender breakdown of their network. Using statistical techniques, the researchers then analyzed which factors most affected the graduates’ job rankings.
The students’ on-paper qualifications, such as test scores and work experience, did not seem to influence job placement, probably because the candidates were already very close on these measures. “It’s like if you had a basketball team where everybody was 6’5” or 6’7” or 6’6”,” Uzzi explains. “Height is probably not going to be the thing that determines which one of them is the best player.”
But sizeable differences emerged when the researchers examined social networks.
Among men, the most successful graduates were more central: men in the top quartile of centrality achieved a job rank 1.5 times higher than men in the bottom quartile.
That is significant, Uzzi says, especially considering that the pay level for someone’s first job after graduation will likely carry forward to future positions. Throughout their career, the higher salary “just compounds over and over and over again,” he says.
Notably, the men’s connections did not have to be strong to be effective. If they had many weak ties to people with many weak connections, they still performed well. Furthermore, the gender composition of men’s networks did not affect their placement levels. “What men need to do well in job placement is just get ‘public’ information,” which anyone can provide, Uzzi says.
Centrality also mattered for women. Yet having a robust network still wasn’t enough to bring women’s job rankings up to the level of men. “Women who have networks that resemble those of high-placing men are low-placing,” even when their qualifications are stellar, the authors write.
However, a different social characteristic did go hand in hand with success.
About three-quarters of the highest-ranking women emailed constantly with a few other women. And, when combined with a well-developed network, these close friends offered a large career boost: women with both high centrality and close ties with female peers had an average job ranking 2.5 times higher than women whose networks lacked those two features.
Uzzi speculates that a male-heavy network may not be especially helpful because only women are likely to share the kinds of private information that female candidates need. For instance, since recruiters sometimes assume women aren’t as committed as men, a female friend might suggest questions to ask during an interview to demonstrate serious interest in a position. A male friend—even a well-connected one—may not think to offer that kind of advice, since he has never faced that obstacle.
“You need that private information to understand how to negotiate within a world where you’re being held to different standards,” Uzzi says.
Uzzi was a bit surprised by the results. After all, having a close circle of friends could have meant that women were living in an echo chamber, cut off from important insights. Closer analysis revealed why that was not the case.
The most successful women had close friends who tended to be connected to many different groups of people, and who could therefore provide new information. If a woman’s inner circle had mainly redundant connections, she did not perform as well—perhaps because she was more likely to get the same perspective repeatedly, “which could create a lot of blind spots,” Uzzi says.
The researchers point out several caveats to their findings. Since they did not read actual emails for privacy reasons, they had to make assumptions about the types of information peers provided. Thus, they can’t say for sure that strong and weak connections provided private and public information, respectively. And more research is needed to see if the results hold true in a range of other contexts.
Still, the results are more than correlations, which strongly suggest that “social networks matter in job placement,” he says. “And they matter differently for men and women.”
Understanding the effects of social networks is particularly important in the age of LinkedIn and Facebook, when people are paying more attention than ever to their connections. “You may find that more and more women are trying to emulate men’s networks, which, according to our findings, doesn’t really help women,” Uzzi says.
This article was previously published in Kellogg Insight. It was republished with permission of the Kellogg School of Management.