Women Need Fewer Mentors and More Sponsors

Women Need Fewer Mentors and More Sponsors

March 15, 2022

As we continue the long, difficult work of dismantling the systems that have kept women out of leadership positions, here is something leaders can do right now.

Women have long struggled for equal representation in the workplace. Although women represent more than 50% of the available talent pool and occupy 52% of all management- and professional-level jobs, fewer than 21% of c-suite executives in the U.S. are women, and women represent just 5% of CEOs at major corporations. Just 1% of c-suite executives in the U.S. are women of color.

While women’s underrepresentation at the top of organizations is less pronounced than it was a decade ago, there is still significant progress to be made. Unfortunately, the coronavirus is now threatening to destroy forward momentum and undo the progress we’ve made.

Women are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis than their male counterparts. In addition to furloughs and layoffs, McKinsey points out in its Women in the Workplace report that “the pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced.” McKinsey points out, for instance, that while working mothers have always worked an unpaid second shift — a full day of work followed by hours of childcare and housework — the school and daycare that made it possible are, for many, gone.

63% of women were responsible for childcare when schools and daycares were shut down, and 80% of working mothers handle the online learning responsibilities of their children.

As a result, many women are struggling to maintain the already precarious balance between their roles as professionals and parents, and are suffering as a result. The McKinsey report states that “more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.” Meanwhile, their male counterparts are getting raises and promotions.

For many, 2020 has been a year of reflection and reckoning around the systems that have perpetuated gender and racial disparities in corporate leadership. Yet, dismantling these systems will take time and considerable organizational will. With women, and particularly women of color, facing a crisis of inequality, many leaders are looking for ways they can help now.

Women need fewer mentors and more sponsors

By the time they reach a management position, most leaders have engaged, formally or informally, with a mentor. While these relationships can be invaluable for providing women guidance and support as they build confidence, develop their skills, and navigate the organization, they clearly aren’t an effective means of moving women from middle management to the executive suite. To wit, 59% of companies have formal mentoring and networking programs. 28% have programs specifically for women. And, women report having more mentors than men. Yet, as outlined above, women are still grossly underrepresented at the executive level.

A large-scale study by a women’s nonprofit organization found that “all mentoring is not created equal.” While women in the survey described how mentoring relationships had helped them “understand themselves, their preferred styles of operating, and ways they might need to change as they move up the leadership pipeline,” men overwhelmingly described a different relationship, one in which their mentor went beyond giving feedback and advice to act as a sponsor, using their influence with senior executives to advocate for their career advancement.

A sponsor is an advocate in a position of power and influence to create opportunities for another person, champion their potential, and promote them actively. They promote their sponsees accomplishments, recommend them for new opportunities, make introductions, and bring them into the informal networks necessary for success.

Sponsorships like these can be extremely powerful for helping women advance their careers. And women of color, in particular, stand to benefit from a powerful sponsor in their organization. Black women are less likely than white women to say that their managers give them chances to manage people and projects, provide opportunities to showcase their work or help them navigate organizational politics.

Unfortunately, women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. Although mentorship opportunities abound, only 32% of white women and 26% of women of color say they have access to sponsorship.

Correcting this inequity requires changing organizational culture. Fortunately, culture starts at the top, and leaders can take steps today that will have a lasting impact on their organizations.

First, leaders can and should investigate formal sponsorship opportunities that exist in their organizations. If none exists, leaders can push talent managers to create one. Second, leaders can be the change they want to see. Leaders can work with talent managers to identify high-potential women who would benefit from an informal sponsor relationship. Sponsoring a woman, especially a woman of color, not only benefits the individual sponsee, but also sends a powerful message within the organization.

As we do the difficult work of dismantling the systems that have long restrained women and people of color and build in their place more equitable power structures, we recognize that increasing access to sponsorship opportunities for women is a small step on the long road ahead. But, for individual leaders, it is a concrete way to affect positive change today.

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