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Women who communicate regularly with a female-dominated inner circle are more likely to attain high-ranking leadership positions, according to a new study by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Notre Dame.

Published Jan. 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study, titled “A network’s gender composition and communication pattern predict women’s leadership success,” showed that more than 75% of high-ranking women maintained a female-dominated inner circle or strong ties to two or three women with whom they communicated frequently. In contrast, men with a larger network – regardless of the gender makeup of that network – are more likely to earn a high-ranking position.

“In this context, such an inner circle can provide trustworthy, gender-relevant information about job cultures and social support, which are very important to women in male-dominated settings,” said Yang Yang, a research assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and a member of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO).

Prof. Yang led the study along with co-corresponding author Brian Uzzi, Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at Kellogg and co-director of NICO.

For the study, researchers reviewed social and communication networks of more than 700 former graduate students from a top-ranked business school in the United States. Each student in the study had accepted leadership-level positions, which were normalized for industry and region-specific salaries. Researchers then compared three variables of each student’s social network: network centrality, or the size of the social network; gender homophily, or the proportion of same-sex contacts; and communication equality, or the number of strong versus weak network ties.

Women with a high network centrality and a female-dominated inner circle have an expected job placement level that is 2.5 times greater than women with low network centrality and a male-dominated inner circle. In addition, women are not likely to benefit from adding the best-connected person to their network. While those connections might improve access to public information important to job search and negotiations, female-dominated inner circles can help women gain gender-specific information that is more important in a male-dominated job market.

Nitesh V. Chawla, the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at University of Notre Dame and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications, is a co-author of the study.

The research was funded by the Army Research Lab and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives program.