The Brief
To erase those gender-based deficits in the executive suite, women should start thinking like men, particularly about their relationship capital.

Equality in the workplace has everything and nothing to do with the numbers. For the past several years, surveys have shown the percentage of women in executive positions at Fortune 500s has stagnated at around 14 or 15 percent. Same for the number of women on those companies’ boards (between 16 and 17 percent since 2011). These days mentoring programs for girls start in adolescence, and competitive undergraduate and MBA programs pump out smart women in droves. Still, the numbers don’t budge.

Workplace-equality experts discuss problems of, and solutions to, the disparity in terms of sexism and leaning in. But there’s another element that doesn’t get much attention at seminars and TED talks: networking, specifically the different ways women and men build their business connections. And those differences make all the difference.

Let’s be clear: That men and women network differently doesn’t mean one gender does it well and the other poorly; sometimes, women’s networks are more effective than men’s. The key differentiator is why they network.

One reason people form professional networks is to drum up business through referrals. A good referral is built around knowing at least a little bit about both the person being referred and the person he or she is being referred to. Think about it. You wouldn’t refer someone you didn’t know to a contact in your network who was looking for new clients or investors. At least, not if you valued your reputation.

This is where women’s tendencies carry an advantage, says Dr. Ivan Misner, Ph.D., founder of BNI (Business Network International). Misner is co-author of Business Networking and Sex (not what you think), which bases a discussion of gender issues in networking on a survey of 12,000 entrepreneurs and self-employed business people across the globe.

Misner’s data showed women’s networks, though smaller than men’s, were comprised of deeper relationships, commonly called “strong ties.” Strong ties often begin on personal notes, with women bonding over stories about family or mutual friends. Misner calls these connections relational (relationships before business) and contrasts them to men’s connections, which tend to be more transactional (business before relationships). When they network, men get to the point faster—an introduction over a round of golf or night of poker, then right to the ask.

“Men are strategic about building work relationships to get to their goal,” says Jane Newton, founder of Wall Street Women’s Forum and a wealth manager and partner with RegentAtlantic Capital. “Women tend to view the relationship as the goal. They think, I want to have friends, I want to be liked, I want to have someone I’m comfortable with. They’re not necessarily thinking about using people in the same way men do, to get to some goal.”

Misner and his team found that regardless of what gender was making the connection, relational types generated more business than their transactional counterparts. In addition, women spent slightly less time than men did on networking and still generated more business. “For referrals and business development it’s all about deep roots and strong ties,” says Misner. “In which case, women are getting it right.”

When it comes to generating job opportunities, though, all those weak ties men form work to their advantage. The relationships might be more shallow, but the networks are wider, and in this case that means more incidental contact with the people who are most likely to help find a new gig.

2002 study found men and women are inclined to build networks comprised largely of their own sex. (Women eventually overcome this tendency somewhat and end up with half-and-half networks.) Problem is (if you’re a woman) 85 percent of executive positions at Fortune 500 companies are occupied by men, so if those men tend to network only with other men, and all of them have wider networks than women, news of job openings at the executive level will mostly circulate among groups of men.

That, of course, makes women’s networking associations a bit of a paradox. While they provide support and opportunities for their memberships, they are, by nature, self-limiting on the job search front. Women who network only with other women will never see the same number of opportunities for executive level positions that men of similar caliber will.

Women looking to move up the ladder, then, have to overcome their tendencies and start incorporating more men into their networks. Sure, some professional women’s networking groups are beginning to invite men into the fold, but that won’t even things out for a while. Individual women need to work on their own behalf. That means tailoring their approach to a different audience, focusing less on making friends with business connections and more on being assertive about asking for what they want early in the conversation.

The Takeaway: Picking up hobbies like golf or cards might offer easier access to a bigger pool of important contacts, i.e., men. But if women don’t learn to be more transactional in their approach, it won’t matter how many rounds they play. Not if they’re looking for a new opportunity anyway. In the networking game, alas, job-hunting women need to be more like men.

A version of this article was previously posted on the RelSci blog. It has been published here with permission.