Women and Men: Different Networks, Different Outcomes

May 30th, 2019


It’s old news that gender diversity matters.1 Yet, while the discussion around and evidence for gender diversity in organizations has grown, the number of senior women – especially women of color2 – in organizations has not.

For years, organizations have tried approaches such as mentoring and sponsorship programs for women and providing women-focused employee resource groups. Given that representation numbers remain stubbornly low, we clearly need a different approach.

We think at least part of the solution lies in better understanding employees’ professional connections. Networks, and the informal information they facilitate, are one of the primary ways people learn about career advancement and development opportunities. Research3 suggests that women and men's networks – and the information within them – are different, thus networks could vastly influence opportunities for career development and advancement. Understanding these connections between people – who knows whom and why – could help organizations understand why some employees rise and why others do not.

We looked at approximately 50 academic and business articles, reports, and books to better understand network dynamics, how they differ by gender, and the potential opportunity for technology to democratize or accelerate women's effective use of their networks. This short article will summarize the literature we reviewed in terms of the following:

  • What we saw
  • What we didn't see
  • What we learned

What we saw:

This literature review focused on research covering the fundamental differences between the networks of men and women and the resulting different outcomes. We also reviewed literature on the approaches organizations can use to help women create networks that support their advancement. The findings from this review fell into three major themes:

  1. Professional networks are different between men and women
  2. Differences in networks result in different outcomes
  3. Specific network characteristics matter for advancement

Professional networks are different for men and women

Men and women have different networks, at least partly due to traditional social dynamics4. Traditionally, women have been primarily responsible for life at home and, therefore, created more ties with the community, family, and friends. Likewise, men have traditionally been responsible for the financial stability of the family and created more professionally-focused networks.

While these traditional social dynamics have helped shape professional networks, other variables at play in organizations likely have a more immediate impact on the structure and composition of professional networks.

For example, men tend to hold a larger percentage of leadership positions and to be promoted more often than women. As a result, when men move up the ranks in organizations, they are more likely to be surrounded by other men (rather than women) in similar leadership or influential roles. As information and job opportunities tend to be shared within networks, men continue to have better opportunities due to their participation in these networks, perpetuating the gender imbalance at higher organizational levels.

Women, on the other hand, are, generally speaking, less likely to be promoted into senior roles. Those that are promoted tend to find themselves as part of a male-dominated professional network (only one in five C-suite executives is a woman5).  Women who do not move into leadership roles often sit in less influential, lower-status positions in organizations.6 These positions do not afford women the same connections into higher-status networks, curtailing access to information and sponsorship for better development and career opportunities.

Differences in networks result in different outcomes

While on the surface network differences may not seem like that big of a deal, those differences affect how individuals move around and up through an organization.  There is a tendency for professional networks to be closed, meaning individuals in one group are all connected to each other and the individuals within those networks have access to and share the same information. Therefore, new and unique information often does not flow into the network.

Closed networks tend to impact women differently than they impact men.7 For men, as they are more likely to be in networks with others in higher-status roles, information that is shared is likely to be important or strategic, which benefits them. Whereas for women, who are less likely to be in high-power networks, closed networks result in less important, less strategic information sharing.

Specific network characteristics matter for advancement

The literature indicates there are several things individuals should consider when developing networks to facilitate career growth. While these practices are not unique to women’s networks, being aware of these characteristics will enable women to better leverage their professional networks for advancement.

First, women need a small “inner group” of connections who can provide immediate support. Individuals benefit from being a central figure in a close-knit group. The literature indicates that these inner groups are crucial because they create a sense of communality and can tap into a woman’s shared experience.

Second, women need to become “brokers” – people connected to fundamentally different networks that can provide them with new and diverse sources of information.8 An individual who can position themselves as a broker between two high-powered groups, or who is directly connected to a broker, has a higher likelihood of accessing unique information and opportunities. The literature also hints that while this is an acceptable and even coveted position for men, women acting as brokers may experience some backlash (which could impact performance9).

This brings us to the third characteristic. To counteract backlash, women may also need to become “energizers” in their network. An energizer is someone that engages with others in a way that builds trust, instills a sense of purpose, and fosters an environment of psychological safety where people are not worried that they will be judged or dismissed. Because of this, energizers are presented with new opportunities and information more often than non-energizers. Research10 suggests that being seen as an energizer is a critical factor in advancement.

What we didn't see:

There were also a couple of thing we expected to see that just didn't show up:

What causes differences

The literature offered little insight into the actual mechanisms that cause differences in networks of men and women. So little has been written on the topic that we found ourselves accessing research in tangential fields to understand how and why these gaps may occur. This gap likely impedes organizational efforts to develop innovative and effective interventions.

Likewise, most of the research geared toward practitioners largely focuses on “fixing” women’s networks through mentoring, sponsorship, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). On the surface, these solutions seem like great ideas; however, because they are often not intentionally managed or designed, they may serve as a forum for the shared experience of women rather than a resource for helping women build networks and advance careers.

How technology can help

There was also little research that discussed using technology as a part of the solution to directly address the advancement of women. In fact, we feel that the gaps in current research have impacted the current technology solutions available. While there are technologies with network analysis capabilities, many – if not all – offer only descriptive reports on the structure and makeup of various networks. Descriptive statistics are a good start, but don’t point organizations toward potential drivers of these differences or suggest solutions.

What caught our attention:

In the process of putting this literature review together, we came across several articles that simplified complex ideas, offered unique solutions, or expanded our understanding of the topic.

The first three articles provide insight into social networks, how they impact aspects of our lives including work, and how different groups of women may face very different realities in the workplace. The final two articles are more academic and provide insight into characteristics of professional networks and their consequences for women. We’ve also included a bonus article that highlight network practices that are critical to the success of women in organizations. Finally, a list of additional readings is provided to offer further insight on the topics covered in this literature review.

Social Network Theory: Explaining Society

Tobias Stone

"…understanding the underlying mechanisms of social networks allows you to use them more effectively. Also, this descriptive analysis can explain some of the weirder things happening in our lives."


  • Provides a high-level overview of social networks
  • Breaks down basic aspects of social network theory and related concepts
  • Explains how social networks impact almost every aspect of our lives

This three-part series (provided via text and/or audio) gives an interesting look at social networks and dives into how they impact our world – from happiness to politics. It also asks the question as to whether technologies that tap into our networks are friend or foe.

Mentorship, Sponsorship, and Networks: The Power and Value of Professional Connections

Center for Women and Business at Bentley University

"…when it comes to professional networks, women and men find themselves in very different positions."


  • Provides a brief overview of important concepts and the benefits of mentorship and sponsorship to individuals and organizations
  • Outlines a framework for understanding networking
  • Offers insight on how to establish a mentorship culture for organizations and how to navigate networks for individuals

Not only is this a great review of the current research on sponsorship and mentoring, but it also brings in a network-based perspective. In addition, the list of resources and articles provided is a robust set of materials to help you further understand this topic.

Connections that Count: The Informal Networks of Women of Color in the United States

Catalyst / Katherine Giscombe

"Depending on the work environment, it may be difficult to form relationships at all with dissimilar colleagues, which would then lead women of color to turn to similar colleagues or people from outside the work organization for advice."


  • Dives into the increased complexities of professional networks for women of color
  • Discusses different network strategies women of color may use when dealing with barriers to organizational advancement
  • Provides recommendations for organizations to think past a "one-size fits all" mentality when addressing the professional networks of women

This article highlights the complex network challenges that women of color face. It forces the reader to see that solutions designed for women do not always apply to all women and solutions should not advance one group of women over others.

Do Women Suffer from Network Closure?

Mark Lutter

"Females … have a higher risk of career failure than do their male colleagues when affiliated in cohesive networks, but women have better survival chances when embedded in open, diverse structures."


  • Discusses the importance and impact of social capital, along with the two main ways that social capital is built (or borrowed) – cohesive and weak ties
  • Illustrates differences in female and male networks and the practical impact that has on women's careers

This is an examination of how women's networks impact career advancement and is an example of what other research is starting to uncover.

To Land Top Jobs, Women Need Different Types of Networks than Men

Kellogg Insight

"While it's true that highly connected women tend to land better jobs, the most successful women also have something they cannot get through ‘beers with the boys’…"


  • Summarizes the findings of a recent empirical investigation11 on the impact of differences between men and women’s networks among MBA students
  • Illustrates that women need a fundamentally different network to find career success
  • Discusses the difference in business networking between men and women

If you can get your hands on the original empirical article that this summary is based on, we highly recommend it. However, if you cannot, this overview hits all the major points and interviews one of the researchers to add context.

Bonus: Invisible Network Drivers of Women’s Success: How Successful People Manage Collaborative Overload

Inga Carboni, Rob Cross, Aaron Page and Andrew Parker

“If the ultimate goal of gender diversity efforts is to build organizations in which employees work together and evolve as professionals without regard to gender, then let’s focus on the relationships themselves.”

  • Suggests that understanding gender diversity requires organizations to think beyond implicit bias
  • Presents the BEST model to help organizations understand the critical networking practices that distinguish high-performing women, including boundary-spanning, efficiency, stickiness, and trust
  • Provides a number of tips for organizations to put their findings into practice

Additional Reading:

    • “What’s in the ‘old boys’ network? Accessing social capital in gendered and racialized networks,” S. McDonald, 2011.
Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  1. Delivering through diversity,” V. Hunt, S. Prince, S. Dison-Fyle, and L. Yee / McKinsey, 2018.
  2. Connections that count: The informal networks of women of color in the United States,” Katherine Giscombe / Catalyst, 2006.
  3. “Homophily and differential returns: Sex differences in network structure and access in an advertising firm,” H. Ibarra, Administrative Sciences Quarterly, 1992.
  4. Poverty and inequality report,” A. Sterling / Stanford University, 2018.

  5. Women in the workplace,” McKinsey, 2018.

  6. “Networking behaviors and career outcomes: Differences for men and women?,” M.I. Forret, and T.W. Dougherty, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2004.
  7. “Do women suffer from network closure? The moderating effect of social capital on gender inequality in a project-based labor market, 1929 to 2010,” M. Lutter, American Sociological Association, 2015.
  8. “A network’s gender composition and communication pattern predict women’s leadership success,” Y. Yang, N.V., Chawla, and B. Uzzi, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017.
  9. “Gender, brokerage and performance: A construal approach,” R. Brands, Academy of Management, 2019.
  10. Invisible network drivers of women’s success: How successful people manage collaborative overload,” I. Carboni, R. Cross, A. Page, and A. Parker / Connected Commons, 2019.
  11. “A network’s gender composition and communication pattern predict women’s leadership success,” Y. Yang, N.V., Chawla, and B. Uzzi, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017.