Having a close group of female connections can offer more than just a supportive environment—it can be one of the best things you do for your career.
According to new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, women are more successful when they have a close network of other professional women—an “inner-circle”—on top of a strong connection to a general professional network.
The study looked at how networking helps male and female MBAs land executive leadership positions. Researchers found both men and women could lean on professional networks to make their way to high-level and better-paying positions, but women with an added support layer advanced further than other women.
“Women needed centrality in their networks to do well, but they also needed something else— this inner circle of women in their network, people who get the most of your face time; your strongest relationships,” says Brian Uzzi, a professor at Kellogg School of Management, who co-authored the study.
That news isn’t necessarily good news because, according to the researchers, it means women need other women to help them deal with issues in the workplace that men don’t face as often. A closely connected community of professional women can provide guidance on hot-topic issues like addressing discrimination in male-dominated industries.
For example, how do you deal with a potential employer who asks about your plans to start a family? Questions like these are technically illegal but are often asked anyway. It might be challenging for a woman to avoid answering when alone with a hiring manager. Discussing these issues with other women who have experiences of their own and can share advice can be hugely beneficial to your professional life.
How to build strong inner circles
While it can be beneficial—and, perhaps, socially easiest—to build a strong network of women through connecting strategically with women in a specific field, the most helpful networks often come from connecting with a varied group of professional women. Diversity is crucial in a group in order to expand the knowledge and career contacts available to members.
Close groups that include women in a variety of different departments or fields provide the greatest benefit for women seeking leadership opportunities, Uzzi's research found.
Not sure how to even find women outside your day-to-day work? Embrace the element of randomness! Find professional and social groups across fields or even across industries to avoid having a closed network where all members have similar experiences and similar sets of professional contacts. Even within a company, a cross-section of women from various departments will provide more chances for unexpected connections than a group of women who work closely together.
For women who haven’t graduated yet or are pursuing higher degrees, that can be as simple as choosing a random academic class you wouldn’t normally sign up for. But if you’re already in the workflow, you might need to pick up some extracurriculars: Get involved with nonprofit boards, team sports, musical groups, book clubs, community service, or other groups outside work.
“Research shows that women who were put into new situations with sets of new students around them were the ones who build most powerful networks” Uzzi says. “Those random interactions turned into connections and gave them a better network.”
Focus on shared interests and shared activities when connecting to other professionals. Meeting another woman somewhere like stand-up comedy class is a way to expand your network while building trust more quickly than you might in an office environment. Plus, your new BFF will be hilarious.