Whisper Networks Are Good for Women's Careers, Research Says


By now, you and I and everyone else knows all the clichés and stigmas around women constantly chatting with each other. It’s in the jokes about us going to the bathroom together. It’s in the stereotype that women are nastier gossips than men, and the practically ancient conception that women talk more than men. It’s even in the phrase “whisper network,” the term used to describe women passing along info about their colleagues. Men don’t have a “whisper network”—they just talk to each other—but that doesn’t sound witchy and shady. Goodness, if only women would stop talking.

But might I suggest that all that talking is good, and I’m suggesting this because new research out of Notre Dame and Northwestern universities proves me right. Basically, the group of researchers wanted to understand what caused some people to procure better leadership positions than others after finishing graduate programs and entering the workplace. The difference was their social networks—but for women it wasn’t about the size of their social network, which in the study is called “centrality.” It also was about if they had an inner circle of women. From the summary (emphasis mine):

While centrality also predicts women’s placement, high-placing women students have one thing more: an inner circle of predominantly female contacts who are connected to many nonoverlapping third-party contacts. Women with a network centrality in the top quartile and a female-dominated inner circle have an expected job placement level that is 2.5 times greater than women with low centrality and a male-dominated inner circle. Women who have networks that resemble those of high-placing men are low-placing, despite having leadership qualifications comparable to high-placing women.

So, first of all, stop feeling bad about having an inner circle. Not only is it keeping you sane and saving you from the really embarrassing (but totally reasonable) urge to drop-kick all the men in your office, it’s better for your career. But the researchers kept going because they wanted to know what is it about having an inner circle that helped these women. It seemed to go against the idea that being “cliquish” is bad for your career.

Ultimately, the researchers wrote that their findings pointed toward two reasons. One was women in these inner circles didn’t stay entirely contained, and one woman in it might provide another woman with a job contact or lead she had from outside the group. The other was that these networks address the “dual concerns of women leaders—simultaneous access to public information and private, gender-specific information.”

In male-dominated settings, women need to gain trustworthy, gender-relevant information about job cultures and social support and wide access to diverse public job-market information.

Women who didn’t have this type of connectivity paid the price and didn’t get high job placements. Men, however, paid no price for it. All that mattered for them was the size of their network. One of the authors explained it a bit more in this quote put out by Notre Dame’s press office:

“Although both genders [sic] benefit from developing large social networks after graduate school, women’s communication patterns, as well as the gender composition of their network, significantly predict their job placement level,” said Nitesh V. Chawla, Frank M. Freimann professor of computer science and engineering and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications. “The same factors—communication patterns and gender composition of a social network—have no significant effect for men landing high-ranking positions.”

Something everyone should remember the next time someone sees two women coworkers talking and calls it “gossiping.”

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