Most women don't need research to tell them they still face a whole bunch of barriers to career success, but if you want to confirm your suspicions, there's a mountain of evidence out there.

Studies show women are penalized for negotiating, reporting harassment, and even being passionate in conversation. They carry a higher burden of responsibilities outside work, and need to be more accomplished to earn the same promotion. I could go on.

But while science has found lots of factors that can hold women back, the good news is it's also uncovered a few tricks that can radically boost a woman's chances of making it to the top. Take a recent Kellogg School of Management study highlighted on HBR.org, as one useful example.

The networks of successful women look different from the networks of successful men

We've all heard the saying that success is all about who you know, but does actual data back up this old truism? To find out, the research team behind the study trawled through a trove of 4.5 million anonymized emails among students at a top business school. Their analysis uncovered something surprising: The answer depends on your gender.

It will shock exactly no one that being central to your network -- a hub who connects lots of different circles -- helped MBAs of both genders land a great job.

"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 résumé​s--that is public but tends to be scattered widely among students in the class. Being central puts dispersed information in ready reach," writes study co-author Brian Uzzi on HBR.org.

But when the researchers dug deeper, they discovered that while men thrived as long as they were central to their networks, women needed an additional secret ingredient to get ahead -- an inner circle of female friends.

"Women who were in the top quartile of centrality and had a female-dominated inner circle of one to three women landed leadership positions that were 2.5 times higher in authority and pay than those of their female peers lacking this combination," reports Uzzi. Women who had only the same loose networks as successful men ended up doing the poorest. 

"We believe that this close inner circle of women likely provides critical private information on job opportunities and challenges," such as "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," explains Uzzi.

Or, in other words, women need a whisper network to get the real dirt on what companies are truly like for women to stand the best chances of rising to the top.

Putting this insight to work

Uzzi and other experts suggest the same takeaway for women: Worry less about the quantity of your relationships and more about their quality. Yes, having plenty of connections is a key factor for success, but for women particularly it's not enough. Deep and trusting ties to other women who will be honest with you about opportunities and landmines ahead can literally double how much you make and how high you climb.

Wistia co-founder and CEO Chris Savage boiled this truth down into actionable advice in a Medium post: "We let people 'happen' to us. But if you put some work into thinking about just what kind of people you want around  --  and exercise some conscious choice around whom you include in your network  --  it can be one of the most powerful routes to personal growth."

Published on: Mar 4, 2019
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