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Empowering Female Leaders Through Strategic Networking

In the context of career advancement, the notion that “It’s not what you know, but who you know” holds some truth. However, for many women, this concept presents unique challenges.

Despite the potential career benefits of building high-status connections within an organization, research has long shown that women face greater obstacles in establishing such connections compared to men.

Research revealed that women are about one-third more likely than men to form high-status connections via a third-party tie. Third-party ties serve as bridges, connecting individuals to a high-status network that might otherwise remain out of reach. Such ties help both men and women forge valuable professional connections.

But why are third-party ties especially beneficial for women? Because they are not mere connections; they are endorsements, character references, and amplifiers of capability. They carry the implicit approval and trust of the mutual contact.

To demonstrate this point, consider the scenario of Laura, a manager in a product development division, who struggled to forge a trust-based connection with the organization’s CTO — a highly respected, high-status player crucial for her career progression. Laura’s breakthrough happened when she worked on a project with Carlos, a director with a longstanding tenure at the company. Carlos, having the CTO’s ear, spoke highly of Laura on several occasions, sharing his favorable opinion of her work. This endorsement, coupled with Laura's compelling pitch during a Zoom meeting arranged by Carlos, led to the CTO seeing Laura in a new light and eventually inviting her to join a cross-departmental task force he was spearheading.

Third-party ties allow women to be seen through the prism of their strengths and competencies rather than through a lens clouded by societal preconceptions. They provide a platform from which a woman’s distinct strengths can be effectively showcased.

So, how can women form third-party ties? Research suggests that women are better than men at mapping informal networks. Yet, they often do not leverage that skill to build career-enhancing networks.

One strategy that women can explore is to think differently about these relationships. For example, focus on goals that transcend professional advancement (the benefits that those ties will bring to a team) or view these ties not as means to an end (career promotion) but as an end itself (as authentic, trust-based relationships between people who care for and support each other).

Now, let’s turn to the question of what an organization can do to help talented women gain access to high-status networks.

One effective approach is to create network sponsor programs. These programs aim to help women forge a deep, trust-based relationship with someone who has already earned the trust of relevant, high-status leaders.

Sponsorship, as opposed to mentorship, involves actively advocating for the advancement of women, opening doors for them, and using their established connections to high-status players to create opportunities for someone else’s career growth.

Network sponsor programs can be a powerful tool in addressing the unique challenges women face in building high-status networks..

LInk to the full research article by HBR

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