What Kind of Network Predicts Success for Women MBA Grads?

Women who gained higher-pay jobs were in close contact with other women.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

By Tara Santora

To land a high-paying job in business, top candidates often attend premier business schools from which graduates enter directly into leadership positions. To get a leg up in the job search, a recent study suggests, women following that path might want to build a core circle of well-connected female friends.

Business is in certain ways still a man’s world, as signified by pay disparities and inappropriate treatment of women in the workplace, according to Brian Uzzi, the lead author of the study and a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The gender gap is also reflected in the breakdown of top leadership positions: In 2017, women made up only about 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 22 percent of board members, according to the Pew Research Center

How strong women's positions are when they enter the realm of business leadership may be related to characteristics of their social networks, according to the study, which analyzed business school students' email exchanges. For both male and female students, greater centrality in the school’s social network—a measure of how well-connected the student was to other students—was associated with landing higher-paying jobs after graduation.

But there was more to the social networks of high-placing women: Over three-quarters of them had cultivated strong channels of communication with a circle of two to three other women, the researchers report. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they write:

"The regression estimate of the impact of these network differences for women’s placement implies that women with a network centrality in the top quartile and a female-dominated inner circle have an expected job placement level that is 2.5 times greater than a woman with low centrality and a male-dominated inner circle."

Further, for high-placing women, each close colleague tended to provide indirect links to a relatively high number of unique contacts—people whom that colleague, but not other close colleagues, was connected to. 

A network with these characteristics may set women up to share job market advice, details on open positions, and ideas about excelling in the workplace as a woman, Uzzi says. If the women in the clique also run in their own distinct social circles, he says, that likely helps bring in more diffuse information about the job market. 

To trace the social networks, Uzzi’s team analyzed more than 4.5 million emails sent by 542 men and 186 women attending a business graduate program in the 2006 and 2007 classes. The researchers looked for connections between aspects of the students’ networks, such as centrality, and their salary-based job ranking after graduation, accounting for the influence of characteristics like grades and work experience. 

Unlike with the female students, the gender dynamics of the men’s inner circles did not appear related to their job placement. 

Women are often taught that “the way to succeed in a man’s world is to behave like a man,” Uzzi says. “This study shows that's only half right.” The women who built networks similar to men’s, with a gender-neutral eye in selecting their closest contacts, tended to come up relatively short in their job placement.

“There’s a long history of giving job advice and networking advice based on men's experiences,” says Laura Nelson, a sociologist at Northeastern University. But women are often held to different standards, Nelson says, so modeling behavior based on men’s when networking might actually put women at a disadvantage. The best networking methods may also differ for racial minorities, Nelson adds. 

The findings would have to be replicated in other samples before firm conclusions could be drawn about women's networks more generally, and because the results were correlational, the researchers can’t prove that the network structure described is what caused the women’s success. The researchers also could not analyze the content of the students’ emails, so it’s difficult to say for sure why a close circle of female colleagues might be associated with women’s success in the hiring process.

Targeting specific people for one's network isn’t the best strategy, even though it’s a popular approach, according to Uzzi. You’re likely to target people with whom your network already overlaps. Instead, he says, you want your new contact to give you information you otherwise would not have access to. “The simplest way to do that is by meeting people at random, because they are least likely to be like you.” 

Tara Santora is a former Psychology Today Editorial Intern.