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Why Female Friendships Matter In Business School

Looking out for number one isn’t always a ticket to the top for women in business. We talk to female MBAs to find out how sisterhood has helped them succeed

Thu Mar 7 2019

It’s no secret that female friendships are an overwhelmingly positive force in women’s lives. Science supports it: researchers at the University of Michigan found that when women feel emotionally close to other women, they produce more progesterone, a hormone that boosts mood and alleviates stress.

Simply put, sisterhood feels good. It also, according to recent findings by the National Academy of Sciences in the US, has professional benefits.

In a study of graduates from a high-ranking US MBA program, researchers found that women’s success in their post-graduate careers was determined not only by ‘high centrality’ in their school-wide network, as was the case with men, but also by high centrality within a close network of other women.

According to the study, the ‘gender-related tacit information’ that these networks provided proved to be an asset to women’s later careers, and it’s not hard to see why.

“I got my job from networking with women” 


For Patti Brown (pictured right), director of the Global MBA at ESSEC Business School in France, women’s networks provided concrete practical information that has helped her advance her career.

“I got my current job from networking with women!” she laughs. “It’s how I heard about it.”

The tangible effects of women’s networking on their careers is wide-ranging—from cases like Patti’s, where news of a job opening is spread, to ‘softer’ information about company culture.

For instance, when entering the jobs market, it can be important for women to find out whether their prospective employer offers a supportive environment for women’s advancement.

This can be near-impossible to ascertain without a ‘woman on the inside’ to weigh in—and the benefits aren’t limited to careers in big corporates. For female startup leaders, too, well-connected women who have trodden the paths you are navigating can be a distinct advantage.

“When founders look for funding, gender still matters”

Katherine Li (pictured below right) is a recent MBA graduate from Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. Originally a political science student, she thought she’d make her mark in public service, but soon found that the law felt restrictive.

“I’m not always the best at following rules,” she jokes. “I figured that was probably not the environment for me.”

Coming from an entrepreneurial family—her father started an imaging institute in Los Angeles—she decided to go into startups. In the summer of her MBA year, she launched her own venture, Butterfly FX, which describes itself as the ‘Netflix of education’, providing on-demand educational tools to advance financial literacy.

While working on the company, Katherine became involved in the L.E.V8 Women program at the Oxford Foundry, the University’s entrepreneurship hub, tapping into their learning resources as well as the peer-to-peer networking that was offered. For Katherine, the network has proven most useful in the search for funding.


Indeed, this is an area that is especially fraught for female startup leaders. Data shows that only 10% of investor funding in the EU goes to women-led ventures; in the US in 2018, this figure was a mere 2.2%.

“I know that when we pitch, when we look for funding, gender still matters,” says Katherine. “[Women’s networks] funnel you towards people that are more supportive, that maybe understand more of the challenges you’re facing.”

The key benefit of women’s networks for Katherine is having a safe space to discuss these issues openly—but that doesn’t always mean restricting men from the conversation. “I think the reason that we feel we have to create separate women’s spaces is that we don’t feel comfortable in other spaces that are open to everyone,” she says.

“But if we set ourselves apart it sometimes causes challenges too—[at the Foundry,] we’ve been trying to figure out when it’s helpful and when it’s not helpful.”

The solution, in Katherine’s opinion, is creating open networks that are nonetheless an encouraging environment for marginalized people to address the challenges they face.

“I think the way that I would differentiate [this kind of network from others], which may even fall outside of gender, is if it’s a safe space for you,” she says.

Check out the latest episode of our podcast, The Business School Question:

Do Women Work Harder Than Men?


“Business school is competitive—women’s networks allow you to let your guard down”

This emphasis on creating a safe and supportive environment is shared by Kelsey Ireland, a current MBA at London Business School. Kelsey is a member of the school’s Lean In Group, a subset of the Women in Business Club, and for her, the women-only nature of the groups is a key element.

Kelsey (pictured right) has been part of women’s business networks for years, having been a chair for a non-profit, women-only network in her native Vancouver before her MBA. However, she believes that these connections take on a unique importance in the b-school environment.


“Business school is by nature competitive, so you’re not necessarily open to supporting other students and celebrating overcoming your [shared] challenges to find success,” she says. “Women’s networks, especially smaller ones, allow you to let your guard down.”

Kelsey was the only woman on her team in her previous role in finance, and she well remembers the pressure she felt to set an example and not show weakness.

In contrast, the women’s networks she’s involved in allow her to release her anxieties and discuss them in an open forum, with women from many different backgrounds and industries—a difficult combination to find outside of business school.

“It’s amazing to sit beside other women and say, ‘Recruiting is so challenging, I feel like I’m constantly failing,’ and to hear the woman across from you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel exactly the same way,’” Kelsey confides.

“We’re stronger if we support each other—we’ve overcome enough to get here, let’s not be competitive: the world’s big enough for all of us to succeed.”

Check this out: 

The 20 Best Business Schools For Women In 2019


“The number one barrier is ourselves”

Evidently, women working together to share confidences and contacts has a huge benefit for their careers post-MBA—and this is true across the world.

Sabrina Ren Yan (below right) is a current MBA at HKUST Business School in Hong Kong with a background in tech and data science, and she has been one of the key players in setting up the MBA women’s network at HKUST.

The idea for creating the women’s network stemmed from a lecture that she and some friends attended as part of a female leadership program.

“The key message was that of course there’s a lot of barriers preventing women from stepping up, but the number one barrier is ourselves,” Sabrina recalls.


She reasoned that systemic change was an essential long-term project that needed to be done, but that changing her mindset about success in business was something that she could do immediately.

Sabrina realized that if she practised confidence in her own competence, she would grab more opportunities—and a network of women helping each other to nurture the same mindset would be even more powerful.

“Our primary goal at the beginning was to bring this awareness to others,” she says. “But there are other benefits: when we get really collected, we activate our networks.

“We now have connections with Women’s Foundation Hong Kong and the Women in Finance organization, and the resources we are able to get are tremendous.”

When it comes to building a career, women are dealing with a different set of challenges.

Thankfully, for women MBAs, business school provides a ready-made support system to overcome them, contrary to the received impressions of women’s dynamics in the workplace; that women must be competitive with one another; that there are only so many seats at the table.

Instead, these networks demonstrate that, for women in business, a successful colleague isn’t to be feared or isolated. You could be each other’s greatest asset.

Student Reviews

ESSEC Business School




On Campus

The best intercultural university

There are more than 50 nationality in the grade, so there are opportunities to interact with people from all around the world. In terms of academics, the BBA course offers diverse courses for the 1st




On Campus

Creativity, adaptability and entrepreneurship

The Master in Management program at the ESSEC Business School allows the students to choose their courses accordingly to their preferences and their professional targets. We can also go through international exchange and take part in internships with companies that are also partners with the school. The school is also next to the city of Paris.




On Campus

Top business school in France

Doing PhD in essec took some time, to be precise about five years. But the experience was very good and cost effective too. There are opportunities for the student for teaching assistantship and that helps both financially and in career. In the final year I could manage to teach marketing to M1 students and this helped shape my career




On Campus

Great college

The program is well suited for early professionals with an engineering degree preferably or a degree in economics. I would suggest taking the ceasure irrespective of the experience level as it helps you take your time to adjust to the job market.





Good school in France

I am currently enrolled in M2 in Essec business school. I am specialising in marketing management. The Grande Ecole programme is valued in France and my school ranks very high up. There are a lot of opportunities for internships and CDD.




The program curriculum

BBA program. The program is really practical and useful, provide us many international opportunities. Like internship and humanitarian experience, and the flexibility is also really cool, we can choose different campus and tracks as we want.




International Course

This school is very international and business oriented. Highly recognized by the companies The campus has been renovated and is very functional and modern from now on. Excellent atmosphere. Reputation of essec is a plus




Friends, Career opportunities.

The program I did gave me the opportunity to start in Singapore. I got the chance to know all the students that started there and we bonded and made some friends for life. The career opportunities that ESSEC also gave me were unbelievable.




Practical and useful

I think the best thing about Essec is that it's not focusing on academics rather it emphasizes on future job mindset and professional experiences.. The classes are interesting and we have plenty of workshops attributing to different sectors.. The campus is very nice with a good cafe and wonderful library. The only problem is the location of the campus. It's quite far from Paris.




On Campus

Amazing experience! Must try

I think its a very amazing school with great and experienced faculty. Also the alumni network is very solid and useful. The school has a great balance of studies and work experience which is really essential for a student.




On Campus

GBBA: Diverse, Enriching, and Career-Boosting

My experience at ESSEC Business School has been outstanding. The Global BBA program offers a rich academic curriculum and diverse learning opportunities. I appreciated the chance to study on different campuses, including an international exchange, which broadened my perspective. The social environment is culturally diverse and vibrant, enhancing both my personal and professional growth. The administration is attentive, constantly offering new academic and student life opportunities. The campus facilities and classrooms are excellent. I highly recommend ESSEC for its excellence, global exposure, and career opportunities.




On Campus


The English track BBA program at ESSEC is simply exceptional. Courses are taught by internationally renowned professors who are experts in their field. The subjects taught cover a wide range of disciplines from marketing to finance, strategy and entrepreneurship. The English track is a major asset because it allows you to develop perfect mastery of professional English, essential in today's globalized business world. Some students love student life at Essec, which is one of the best in France, but it all depends on taste.