Women career growth: How to manage your network

By Patrycja Riera, CEO Inclusionem

In this week’s Career growth post, Patrycja looks at why and how to manage our professional network makes a big difference in our career development. Who you know and who knows you matters.

We want to see more women occupying top level positions. Gender diversity pays off and it is beneficial for literally everybody. At the rate we are going at, the World Economic Forum estimated that it will take us 217 years to close that gap. As much as organizations and governments can do to support that, we individually have a role to decrease the numbers of years. Probably one of the most important things we can manage our network. I personally believe, the key to gender diversity at a workplace is the the ability for men and women to build strong and positive working relationships.

However, we have seen that this is rather challenging and many years of research on organizational networks show that who you know and who knows you is important for performance and career progression.

Those who are in strong and positive relationships are more likely to share information, insights, organizational politics, share job opportunities and even recommend each other. Recent research shows that feeling excluded from organizational networks is the number one barrier for women to career succession

Is it really the bias? 

Can we blame bias to explain why we are not there yet? Well, let me first explain: Implicit bias is an unconscious attitude, it is how we understand and perceive actions and decisions in a subtle or persistent way.

For example, implicit bias is why we perceive a male who raises his voice as passionate, but we call a woman doing the same, emotional. A bias also makes us more likely to reach out and create relationships with those who are similar to us.

The research shows that this bias is not the main reason of women’s logical disadvantages in organizations, but mainly that where women or men are in a minority in their organization, they tend to socialize with the same gender. However, in firms where the proportions of men and women are fairly equal, relationships do not organize around gender

I am not saying that biases are not the problem of why we are underrepresented at the top, on some level yes, it is. What I want to say is, there is more ingredients that impact the situation and I propose to in this article to focus on networks to understand what we, as women can do to make sure we do not wait another 217 years to close the gap.  

Where does the success come from then? 

From looking at network data, we can conclude which network drives empowerment and supports women to be successful, whether or not they were in the majority within a firm. On some occasions networking strategies that work for men also work for women, in other scenarios, strategy playbook is different.

There are four practices that high performing women use that makes them more successful: boundary-spanning, efficiency, stickiness and trust (and energy building).

Boundary Spanning

It is not about how many people you know; it is about how well you know them and understand how they can support you. Just knowing a lot of people often has a negative impact on performance.

Research shows that women tend to create closely knit network and don’t tap into broad networks in order to get work done and increase their exposure to various stakeholders. Recent studies showed that those that form strong and broad and tight knit connections with each other have a bigger chance to reach leadership positions.

There are five different types of boundary-spanning and they are not difficult to form, however they do require you to be proactive and often move out of your comfort zone:

  • Emergence/Creativity Ties – it connects two different areas of domains or functions to encourage ideas sharing. 
  • Depth/Best Practice Ties – these are relationships between those with similar expertise to encourage depth and efficiency of work. 
  • Professional Growth Ties – are those where you build connection with informal mentors, especially those who keep you accountable. 
  • Vertical Ties – these are relationships with your sponsors who are important in your career progression. They are those that give you visibility of projects or access to potential new jobs.
  • Sensemaking/Landscape Ties – creates connection between different people that allow to see an accurate picture of the stakeholder network important when delivering critical tasks, it facilitates future collaboration.


At every organizational level collaboration is crucial for high performance. To understand better how to collaborate effectively, let’s look at certain behaviors that enable both men and women to make an impact:

  • Challenge beliefs – the research shows that the need for control and concern over identity and reputation often stops women from engaging in effective collaborative behaviors. Women who got to the top in their organization engaged in high collaboration and let go of their need to be right. Don’t see the word “no” as binary but rather be opened to discuss alternatives to make sure the job gets done. Set yourself some limits for preparation – just because you put a lot of time and effort into preparation – more does not always mean better
  • Impose structure – research shows that women are less likely to block out time in their calendars for reflective and strategic work (apart from meetings). By imposing structure to your schedule, you create opportunities to engage in higher level thinking, in activities that are really important for job and high performance. Therefore, schedule regular time for reflective thinking and structure your day so that your rhythm of work is optimal for your performance and well-being (for example when do you reply to emails etc). By doing so you will use less time on nonessential requests and tasks and focus on what really matters. 



There are different ways of approaching working relationships. The question is who do we build those relationship with? 

Research shows that women are more likely than men to create and maintain the same sex relationships. For women, those relationships grow stronger and are more mutual overtime, where men are more likely to build relationships with either gender or constantly adapt their networks to meet the shifting work demands.

What can you do differently? Nurture relationships with those that add value to your network whether it’s man or woman, and leave those that do not add value or energy in any way. This often means, stop saying yes and start saying no to unnecessary activities or meetings that connected to the wrong people. 

  • Keep churning and make sure that they are diverse people in your network.  You want some people around you that are trusted advisors and truth tellers, and you also want people who can offer ideas. At the same time steady stream of expertise and perspective is needed for success as well.  Review your network and notice what type of relationships you need to start building more or less. 
  • Leverage stronger external connections through mutual value creation. Many of us are really good at creating strong mutual relationships but we actually don’t take advantage of them.  I encourage you to identify and engage people who are opinion leaders and pose organizational know-how. Use them for honest feedback and personal support. Take every opportunity to acquire knowledge and learn skills from them. Woman who gets derailed usually focus on the social part of the relationship rather than what they can get out of that relationship to support their professional growth. The lesson here is, it is not one or another, but it is one and the other.  
  • Avoid network traps that cause otherwise high performers to struggle or derail. There are few things that can derail you from achieving success in collaboration. By sticking to the same trusted people, you might fall into the bias learning and not see other things that are important for your growth. You may also find yourselves occupying the rule of a disconnected expert, who does not know when the skills they have used in pass rules are insufficient. Therefore, stay alert to the traps and adjust your patterns of collaboration to avoid failure. Make sure you learn from wide range of people and you stay open to other opinions or ways of working.  
  • Trust is the most important ingredient of a strong relationships. There can be two types of trust: a competency-based trust (trust that you are able to do what you say) and a benevolence-based trust (trust that you have my interest in mind). I have seen over and over with my clients the face that they face a tradeoff between being perceived as a competent woman at the same time perceived this warm and likable. This is why it’s important to learn how to build both of those trusts and how to use them in turn interchangeably in the networks. 
  • Lay a strong foundation for competence-based trust by demonstrating your capability and expertise. At the same time avoid making comments that will downplay your contributions and abilities. Be consisted in what you say, and you do and give before you ask without expecting something in return. Furthermore, connect with people off task, get to know them for who they are and not what they do. 
  • Create energy in the moment and be fully engaged when you are interacting with others. Be present by deeply listening to what others have to say and focus on possibilities and opportunities rather than what barriers and constraints you might have. 


  • Noland, M., Moran, T., & Kotschwar, B. (2016). Is gender diversity profitable? Evidence from a global survey. White paper presented at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. 
  • Catalyst. (2004, January 15). Report: The bottom line: Connecting corporate performance and gender diversity
  • Levin, D. Z., Whitener, E. M., & Cross, R. (2006). Perceived trustworthiness of knowledge sources: The moderating impact of relationship length. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), 1163–1171. 
  • Yang Y., Chawla, N., & Uzzi, B. (2019). A network’s gender composition and communication pattern predict women’s leadership success. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116 (6) 2033–2018. 
  • Heilman, M. E., & Chen, J. J. (2005). Same behavior, different consequences: Reactions to men’s and women’s altruistic citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(3), 431–441. 
  • Groysberg, B. (2012). How star women and star men fare differently in the workplace. Harvard Business School Cases