The difference in the way men and women approach networking can have a big impact on career opportunities. Here are six ways women can leverage their connections for the same kind of boost men enjoy.

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe

It’s been said that it’s not what you know but who you know. And there is a long history of men getting to positions of power by leveraging their connections. Now, a new study published in the journal Human Relations suggests it’s not just because men have more access to power and face less bias (although that certainly plays a role), it’s also because men and women build their networks differently. According to the study, women often hesitate to ask for help because they don’t want to “exploit” their network and they’re too modest.

When women seek a mentor, the study says, they tend to look for someone they want to be friends with rather than someone they can learn from. Studies have shown women aren’t getting the tough feedback they need to move ahead. The best mentors will push, dare, and confront mentees, and challenge them to take on projects they might otherwise avoid.

Men, on the hand, look to form alliances. Men are willing to do business with anyone, even someone they don’t necessarily like, as long as that person can help them achieve their goals. Men understand that this is a work relationship that can be dissolved when it’s no longer convenient, not a long-term friendship. Yet women are leery of capitalizing on social ties and tend to overemphasize the moral aspects of networking, the study finds.

“I think men are socialized from the get-go to understand that mixing business and friendship is what you do” to get ahead, says Rachel Thomas, president of “We, as women, aren’t as comfortable doing that.” Here are six ways to feel more comfortable building an effective network that you can rely on for career advice.


It’s no secret that networking is the key to getting selected for stretch assignments that often lead to promotions. Yet, women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs and they are far less likely to be promoted into them. In fact, for every 79 women promoted, 100 men are promoted, according to the 2018 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Co. and

“You know, the guy in the office next to yours is asking for help and recommendations,” Thomas says. “Remember that men are doing it every day, it is completely acceptable and they are getting huge benefits from it.” Yet, Thomas admits that it’s fundamentally harder for women to build powerful networks because women receive less day-to-day support at work and less access to senior leaders. Women are less likely to have someone coach them on company politics, or recommend them for stretch opportunities or advocate for their promotion, says Alexis Krivkovich, a managing partner for McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office and an author of the Women in the Workplace study. This lack of interaction with senior leadership is even more pronounced for Hispanic and black women, making it even more essential for women to be proactive in building and using their network, she adds.


Be careful not to confuse friendship and mentorship when you are networking. “Write down the names of the people you think of as part of your network, not your best friends, but the people you can go to for career advice,” Krivkovich says. Be deliberate in creating that network by mapping out which person you would ask for career advice, for sponsorship, for a sounding board and to challenge you. “Understand what role you are hoping for—sponsorship, mentorship, or an ally,” she says. “Sponsorship is about opportunity creation, mentorship is about advice, and an ally equates to someone who will be your personal champion. There are a range of roles you want to have in a network to make it robust.”


Although networking is about building relationships, that doesn’t necessarily mean developing a deep personal friendship with someone. Instead focus on sharing your career a