Personal Growth

For Career Success, Men and Women Need Different Inner Circles

When you think of the people in your life who cheer you on in your successes, advise you, and maybe even pull some strings to help you get a leg up, who are those people? The individuals you choose for your inner circle — or as entrepreneur Andrew Senduk puts it, your personal board of directors — could mean the difference between success and failure, at least when it comes to your professional life. But it turns out that what your ideal inner circle should look like could be very different depending on your gender: If you're a woman, you'll benefit most from a circle of female friends.

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Ring of Hire

In a perfect world, we'd all be hired only on our abilities and our potential to succeed. But for the most desirable positions, it takes a lot more than that: you need to be likable, a good fit for the company culture, and someone who knows not only how to do the job, but how the company likes things done. A strong inner circle of friends and colleagues can give you the kind of advice and insider knowledge it might take to become that person.

According to research published in January by Notre Dame and Northwestern University researchers, men and women should be looking for different qualities in their personal inner circles. The study looked at 728 graduate students, a quarter of them women, at a top-ranked business school who were in a program designed to give them the kinds of management skills they'd need to land a leadership-level position right out of school, rather than starting at an entry level and rising through the ranks. Every student in the study had accepted a leadership position at a company, but those positions varied in their titles and salary.

The researchers collected every email the students sent throughout the school year before they were hired — the emails were anonymized for privacy — and analyzed their network of contacts for a few different variables. Those included network centrality, or the overall size of their network; communication equality, or how many strong versus weak relationships they had in the network; and gender homophily, or how many people of each gender they interacted with. Then, they crunched the numbers to figure out how well those variables predicted the position the students were hired into.

I Am Woman, Hear Me Network

The researchers found that, yes, the students' networks strongly predicted their leadership positions. But that prediction was different for men and women. The most important variable for men was centrality, or the size of their network; a 10 percent increase in a man's network size was correlated with a nearly 30 percent boost in the rank of their job placement. The other variables didn't really matter: they could have more male friends or more female friends, more close relationships or more casual acquaintances — it made no difference.

But the exact makeup of a woman's inner circle mattered immensely. For one thing, the size of a woman's network was even more influential than the size of a man's: a 10 percent increase in a woman's network size was correlated with a nearly 60 percent boost in job placement. And the inner circles of the highest-placing women were the most female-dominated and had the closest relationships. A woman with a large, female-dominated inner circle was likely to be hired at a position 2.5 times higher than a woman with a smaller, male-dominated inner circle.

The researchers were surprised by this since past research has shown that insulated, homogeneous networks typically have the fewest benefits for their members. But these women's networks had a twist: Most of the women in the network also belonged to other networks that didn't overlap. The same wasn't true of men or less-connected women. "We also saw that inner circles benefit from each other, suggesting that women gain gender-specific private information and support from their inner circle, while non-overlapping connections provide other job market details," said co-author Nitesh V. Chawla in a statement.

For men, this means you can rest easy: As long as you maintain a lot of professional relationships, the strength of those relationships and the gender makeup of your network doesn't really matter. But for women, this is a good reminder that female friendships are powerful — maybe more powerful than you thought.

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For a how-to guide on finding your own inner circle, check out the #1 New York Times bestseller "Who's Got Your Back: The Breakthrough Program to Build Deep, Trusting Relationships That Create Success — and Won't Let You Fail" by Keith Ferrazzi. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer February 21, 2019

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