LANDING an executive leadership role at a major company often requires making connections with the right people. Graduates who seek high-profile corporate jobs are encouraged to build a network of diverse, influential contacts and avoid cliques.

But for women, a new study suggests, networking like a man is simply not enough. For women seeking to break into a leadership position in the corporate world, the key to success may lie in other women.

A study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the most successful female job seekers from a top-ranked graduate school relied not only on a wide network of contacts, but also on a close inner circle of other women who provide support and gender-specific job advice.

“When you talk to students on the ground, many of them think: ‘The way for me to achieve the things I want in life is to emulate the network that men have,’” said Brian Uzzi, one of the authors of the study. “Some women do, and those are the women who do the absolute worst.”

Corporate leaders are increasingly recruited directly from highly competitive graduate schools, so the study’s authors chose to focus on a group of 728 students in their late 20s and early 30s at a top-ranked graduate business programme between 2006 and 2007. About three-quarters of the students were men, while about a quarter were women.

Having a close-knit circle of female friends provided women with a support system as they navigated the job market. The women in these circles would share company information specific to women, such as details about a company’s workplace culture for women.

“That kind of support, we hypothesise, helps propel women into leadership positions,” said Nitesh Chawla, a co-author of the study. “They can apply for jobs that are a better match.”

When studying these close networks of women, the authors “found something else that made us put the brakes on everything,” Uzzi said. The inner circle itself was made up of women who are connected to one another. In other words, it created a clique, a kind of network that research has shown can create an echo chamber.

“How on earth can women be benefiting from this network?” Uzzi asked. The key to these cliques was the fact that each of the women in the inner circle had a set of contacts that were independent of the contacts of the other women. In that way, each woman served as a sort of bridge to a vast number of other diverse connections.

Women are particularly good at building those bridges across different networks, according to Herminia Ibarra, an organisational behaviour professor. For example, Ibarra recalled how, for a long time, she was among the few female full-time professors in her field and developed close relationships with other female professors. “Because we’re few and we’re in different places, our networks are different. Our networks have more degrees of separation,” she said.

In some ways, women who are a minority in their field often develop close connections with other women and the ability to reach beyond their own circles. “Women’s disadvantage gives them an advantage,” Ibarra said.

This article first appeared in Washington Post.

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