The Missing Piece In Women's Leadership Equity

position Mar 08, 2023
Blog about the need of sponsorship for women to advance into leadership roles

 In December of last year, I had the opportunity to attend MLB's Winter Meetings in San Diego, California. The event brings together league executives, team owners, general managers, team scouts, visitors from baseball-playing countries, and trade show exhibitors for four days of discussions about league business.

One of the sessions was a reception to honor and celebrate women in sports. It was a fantastic event, and the guest speaker was Kim Ng, the first female GM. Kim was inspirational and poised. Her words still resonate in my mind. One of the pieces of advice she gave us was to befriend and reach out to the man in the industry because while we can get far alone, we can get even further with them by our side.

At first, I was so upset by her comments; as a woman who had to work hard to climb the ladder of success in male-dominated industries, it made my heart ache to think that for us to succeed, we need men holding our hands and taking us there with them. How can that even be a thing?

As you can imagine, every potential thought crossed my mind. But as the words sank in, I realized the wisdom in her advice...

Kim was advocating for Male Sponsorship.

A study by Catalyst found that women are more likely to be promoted when they are sponsored for leadership positions. But the same study also found that only 7 percent of senior executives were women. This means that there aren't enough women in leadership roles to be able to sponsor us, and to make matters worse, those who do get there are often mentored but not sponsored by their superiors.

But what is sponsorship exactly and why is important?

Sponsorship is when an individual or organization advocates for your work, ideas, and/or career advancement. It's a relationship where one person promotes another to their network of contacts and helps them get ahead by leveraging their own influence. It's a powerful tool that can help you break through the glass ceiling and advance your career.

Unfortunately, data suggests that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored, while men are under-mentored and over-sponsored.

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that high-potential women who did not have sponsors were 53% less likely to reach top management than their male peers. They also left their jobs at twice the rate of men in similar positions.

Interestingly, you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman who doesn't want to advance in her career. Yet, despite their ambition and drive, many women are held back by systemic biases that prevent them from advancing as quickly as their male counterparts.

In fact, studies have shown that Sponsorship can make all the difference for women trying to break into leadership roles at work. For example, in one study conducted by Catalyst Inc., researchers found that women who receive Sponsorship are promoted more quickly than those who do not and are also more likely than non-sponsored peers to move into senior management positions over time (Catalyst Inc., "Sponsorship: How Rising Stars Get Ahead," February 2017).

"Sponsorship is sometimes about people behind the scenes who are sitting in rooms determining your assignments and your next career step, and you don't even know who they are." - Cathy Engelbert

Building a network of sponsors.

Sponsors can be anybody in your network of peers, including women you work with or for. You don't have to wait for a sponsor to come along: You can actively seek out people willing to help you advance. Sponsors must believe in you and your abilities and they need to know your aspirations and goals.

Be sure to have at least one person in your network who has more experience than you and is willing to share it with you. This person doesn't need to be your boss or someone else high up in the company—it can be anyone willing to mentor you and eventually sponsor you. (If there aren't any women around who fit this description, then ask among people who work in similar fields.)

Now I am very conscious of the fact that men tend to shy away from sponsoring women due to fears and misconceptions. If you are a male leader reading this, I recommend that you set up a formalized process for mentorship and Sponsorship of women. Do not let this process be ad-hoc or random. Normalize the promotion and empowerment of women in the workplace and set up a formalized cadence to meet and learn about their potential and ways you can help and promote their work across the organization.

We can all do our part.

As I reflect on Kim's words, I realize that while my hard work, tenacity, and skills have gotten me far, the main reason I have raised to the level I am today is because of having strong sponsors that have advocated for me and brought me in the room to take my seat at the table.

It is not enough to be an ally; you must also be a sponsor. It is not enough to listen and empathize with the experiences of others; you must also take action on their behalf.

As a leader, I am committed to mentoring and sponsoring women in my organization and community. Strong sponsors are essential for professional advancement and will impact the lives of our female employees. If you are not already doing this, please consider how you can create opportunities for talented women in your organization.

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