Women Rely on Each Other to Reach Top Leadership Roles

When advancing through the ranks of any organization, the promotions get harder and harder to come by.


Source: Mark Agnor / Shutterstock

For one, in a typical pyramid-shaped organization, there are simply fewer and fewer positions the closer one gets to the top. And it isn’t always about who has the best skill set, education, and experience. A lot of it has to do with knowing the right people: networking.

Male vs. Female Networking

The networking game might work a bit differently for men than for women, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Landing an executive leadership role at a major company often requires making connections with the right people,” says The Washington Post (WaPo), adding that graduate students seeking high-ranking corporate jobs are taught to build a network of diverse and influential contacts, and avoid cliques.

“That advice often works—for men,” says WaPo. “After all, the leaders of corporate America are overwhelmingly men: Women make up fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and fewer than a quarter of Fortune 500 board members.”

Instead, the National Academy of Sciences study suggests that women may benefit more from a close-knit group of other women. The study authors analyzed 4.55 million e-mails sent among a group of 728 students in their late 20s and early 30s at top-ranked graduate business programs between 2006 and 2007. The group of 728 was about three-quarters male and one-quarter female.

The findings? “After controlling for factors such as a student’s work experience and academic performance, the authors found that students’ social networks strongly predicted their placement into leadership positions,” reports WaPo.

For men, the more influential and widespread the connections, the greater their leadership placement. For women, though, the higher achievers had just a few other women in their networks. Those with male-dominated networks tended to be the lowest achieving.

The Implications

The finding that women and men benefit from such different networking models may seem surprising, but in a follow-up post, we’ll discuss some specific theories that might help explain the difference.