A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing Into Leadership

Too few women are reaching the top of their organizations, and a big reason is that they’re not getting the high-stakes assignments that are prerequisite for a shot at the C-suite. Often, this is because of a lack of powerful sponsors demanding and ensuring that they get these steppingstone jobs.

Women tend to be overmentored and undersponsored. My colleagues and I have found that having a mentor increased the likelihood of promotion two years later for men, but had no effect on promotion for women. One reason was that the women’s mentors were less senior than those of the men and, as a result, lacked the clout needed to advocate for them.

I have worked with dozens of organizations that have experimented with sponsorship schemes only to return to less controversial (and less effective) mentoring programs. Typically, they abandon sponsorship because experience has shown them that while you can ask senior executives to provide advice and support to high-potential women, you cannot mandate that they spend their personal capital advocating for people they don’t know well or may not be bullish about.

Companies need to shift away from seeing sponsorship as an either/or and move toward a view of sponsorship as a spectrum of behavior, one that allows various types of commitment — and one I’ve found to be more effective in connecting women to powerful sponsors. Along this spectrum lies a range of helping roles that can, over time, evolve authentically to full sponsorship. In order of ascending commitment, these include:

STRATEGIZER: An executive shares her “insider knowledge” about how to advance in the organization. She strategizes with her mentee about how to get ahead and how to fill any developmental gaps that might block her progress.

CONNECTOR: An executive makes introductions to influential people in his network. He talks up his mentee with peers and uses those interactions to learn more about how she is seen by others.

OPPORTUNITY GIVER: An executive gives her protégé a high-visibility project or promotion, within the scope of roles under her control.

Thinking in terms of incremental steps toward full-blown sponsorship has clear implications for whether you seek a male or a female sponsor. Women often prefer women mentors and sponsors because they value advice from people who have faced some of the same dilemmas they have. But, since in most business organizations it’s men who have the power and top positions, most of the people best placed to be effective sponsors will be men. A study conducted by David Smith and Brad Johnson at the U.S. Naval Academy and War College found that when women are mentored by men, they make more money, get more promotions and have better career outcomes — not because men are better mentors, but because they have more power.

Having an executive-level sponsor can be “make or break” for a high-potential woman’s career. But for these kinds of relationships to flourish, both executives and their organizations must be clear about what sponsorship is and what steps they might take to ensure women have the full-bloom sponsorship support they need.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Leadership

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