Women with a close inner circle of female friends are more likely to reach high-ranking leadership roles, according to a new study. (monkeybusinessimages/iStockphoto)

Landing an executive leadership role at a major company often requires making connections with the right people. Graduate students seeking high-ranking corporate jobs are encouraged to build a network of diverse and influential contacts, and avoid cliques.

That advice often works — for men. 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.

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 this week 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, an author of the study and a leadership professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “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 program between 2006 and 2007. About three-quarters of the students were men, and about a quarter of them were women.

To examine the link between students' social networks and their eventual job placements, the authors analyzed 4.55 million emails sent among all the students. Then they collected data about each student’s job placement, including the industry sector, the regional location and the starting salary, to determine the level of leadership authority each student reached.

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. Among the men, the more influential connections a male student had across the schoolwide network, the higher his leadership placement would be.

But among women, the authors were surprised by the findings: 77 percent of the highest-achieving women had strong ties with an inner circle of two to three other women. The lowest-achieving women had a male-dominated network and weaker ties with other women in their network.

Having a tightknit 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 hypothesize, helps propel women into leadership positions,” said Nitesh V. Chawla, a co-author of the study and a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Notre Dame. “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 said. 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, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. 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,” Ibarra said.

In some ways, women who are minorities in their field often develop close connections with other women and the ability to reach beyond their own circles, Ibarra said.

“Women’s disadvantage gives them an advantage,” Ibarra said.

Ibarra brought up a recent study featured in the Harvard Business Review that focused on grape growers in Champagne, France, where female growers are a minority. The researchers found that female growers were able to charge systematically higher prices than male growers for grapes of the same quality.

The main reason? The women often closely interacted with one another for social support.

“These informal relationships frequently led to the women exchanging useful knowledge and market information that the men tended to keep secret,” the researchers, Amandine Ody-Brasier and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Those conversations might include information about who does business with whom, to what extent, for what grapes, and at what price.”

The female growers were able to leverage their informal social networks to increase the competitiveness of their business, Ibarra said. “Some people think it’s just for socializing, but it’s not.”

It’s important that women recognize the power of the relationships they have traditionally relied on for social support, said Deborah Kolb, a professor emerita for women and leadership at the Simmons College School of Management and author of “Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains.”

“Women’s networks you haven't necessarily thought of as strategic are strategic,” Kolb said.

Her advice echoed similar strategies that became popular among female White House staffers in the Obama administration who grew frustrated whenever men ignored their ideas in meetings. They created a strategy they called “amplification.” Whenever a woman’s idea went unacknowledged in a meeting, another woman would reiterate it and give her credit for it.

Kolb also shared a story about a group of women who worked in a financial services firm. Realizing they were falling behind their male colleagues, the women started helping one another get in front of portfolio managers who would evaluate them. The women sought out opportunities to recommend female colleagues for job openings and shared advice for managing their work and personal lives.

“They really saw each other as a network that could really help and support each other,” Kolb said. “The network existed. It was just trying to understand how to make it strategic.”