Connecting with brilliant women in your field doesn’t just make you feel good – it can also boost your job prospects.
There are myriad benefits to having strong relationships with other women. I turn to my closest female friends for everything from relationship advice to political analysis and book recommendations, and I know that if the s**t ever truly hits the fan, I have a core group of women who’ll drop everything to look after me. There’s a reason that one of the only scenes that still resonates from the (now extremely dated) Sex and the City movie is the one where Charlotte pulls Carrie away from Big, sending him stumbling backwards with a livid “No!” We all recognise that feeling of wanting to murder the person who hurt our friend.
But it’s not just in our personal lives where tight-knit relationships with other women are beneficial. According to recent research, maintaining a close female network can also help women progress in competitive careers.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, suggests that women whose professional networks contain a female-dominated “inner circle” are more likely to achieve high-ranking leadership positions. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University in the US looked at more than 700 graduates of a prestigious MBA programme, and mapped out their social networks by tracking their email accounts.
They found that graduates who landed coveted high-level jobs tended to have large social networks – meaning that they had many connections to peers working in the same field as them. This was true for both men and women, and it’s not hard to understand why: those kinds of contacts can be valuable sources of information when job-hunting, whether a friend is letting you know about a new opening or warning you off a dodgy company.
But a gender divide appeared when the researchers looked at the study participants’ “inner circles” – the smaller groups that they were closest with within their wider networks of industry peers. They found that more than 75% of the high-ranking women had a female-dominated inner circle, or strong ties to two or three women within their social network who they spoke with frequently.
Men’s career success, in contrast, was not particularly affected by the gender make-up of their closest contacts. In fact, it doesn’t look like having a tight-knit core group makes much of a difference to men’s progress at all: the male participants in the study were found to benefit mostly from having a large network, regardless of whether they had an “inner circle” with whom they communicated regularly.
Nitesh Chawla, director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Network Science and Applications at Notre Dame University, explained that female-dominated inner circles can help women gain gender-specific information that helps them succeed in a male-dominated job market.
“Although both genders benefit from developing large social networks after graduate school, women’s communication patterns, as well as the gender composition of their network, significantly predict their job placement level,” he said. “The same factors – communication patterns and gender composition of a social network – have no significant effect for men landing high-ranking positions.”
This is far from the first piece of research to suggest that maintaining strong relationships with other women in your industry can boost your career. One 2012 study found that female employees experienced higher levels of career-related social support, a greater sense of wellbeing and more positive attitudes toward their workplace when they participated in social activities with other members of their company’s internal women’s network.
Other research shows that women in undergraduate engineering programmes with more female graduate mentors are more likely to continue in the major, and that women who are friends with accomplished women are more likely to take advanced STEM courses. And high-level women don’t just support the women they already know – they also help get new women into their industry. Data from the World Economic Forum shows that when women are better represented in leadership roles, more women are hired across the board.
The boom in professional women’s networks shows that people are increasingly waking up to the benefits of having a strong network of friends in their industry. Otegha Uwagba set up Women Who, a network for women in the creative industries, in 2016, while the AllBright private members’ club in London opened in 2018 to provide a place for working women to connect. The Wing, New York’s luxe and explicitly feminist “work and community space” for women, is due to open a London branch in the near future, while long-running UK women’s networks like We Are The City, Forward Ladies and the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs continue to go from strength to strength.
In summary, knowing brilliant women in your field won’t just make you happy – it could actually help take your career to the next level. In need of real-world tips on how to form new professional connections? Read this advice from successful women on how they learned to network without feeling awkward.
Images: Rawpixel/Unsplash, Getty Images