Most people think the key to a successful career is what you know—where you went to school, what you studied, the grades you got.
Research, though, is showing the more crucial factor is who we know—our social networks—because those networks are how we navigate possibilities.
And then, if you’re a woman, there’s one element more. The most successful women, researchers find, have a close-knit circle of trusted female peers they rely on. Women, it turns out, need other women to thrive.
I’ve had three careers in my life. In the first two, I didn’t see the need for women’s networks. I was in professions—teaching and design—where I was already surrounded by female colleagues. When I got to my third career—supply chain management—I entered with a certain automatic level of grace because I was joining the family business. At that point I thought, “Who has time for networking with women?” It seemed like social activity...and I was very busy.
Fast-forward a few years. Supply chain management is a male-dominated profession. Suddenly I was going to association gatherings where I was one of only a handful of women in rooms filled with men. We women joked—ruefully—that at least there was never a line at the ladies’ washroom.
It was my third career that taught me about the importance of women’s networks. I learned because just being in the same room with men in a meeting was no guarantee that I was actually in the same meeting they were. The impact was subtle, but men had their own ways of talking and thinking and getting things done. And I was The Other.
Not to complain. I worked very hard and I learned to learn fast. I learned to be okay with being uncomfortable, and I learned to succeed while being uncomfortable. But I also learned in my own way what research is now showing to be true—namely, that women need the same social networks as men do to discover and exploit opportunities. That’s our access to “public information” about what’s happening. And then women need one network more. That network is a close inner circle of female contacts who provide “private information.” Private information is what women can tell other women about how to navigate gender bias or a particular company’s culture or the best way to make a good impression in a male-dominated setting.
This fall, I got to sit down with 18 young women who are Drake Scholars at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The Drake Scholars program gives financial support to female students who are working toward their MBA at Kellogg, either in the Executive MBA program or the Evening & Weekend MBA program.
The Drake Scholars are exceedingly bright, skilled female leaders-in-development. They had great questions for me about lessons I’ve learned as a business leader. I was happy to share my experiences. Yet the message I most wanted to leave with them was not to look to me or to their professors for wisdom and encouragement. Rather, I want them to look to each other. I want them to experience the support, warmth, and understanding of a women’s network where they can show up as themselves, with all their doubts and questions, and know they are accepted and understood.
It’s an uncertain world for all of us now, but women seem to carry the uncertainty more than men sometimes. Still, our gifts and insight are so needed as we define the path forward. It is essential women speak our minds. The future will arrive whatever we choose—but I’d prefer to go out to meet it shoulder-to-shoulder with a friend, a warm hand on my back.