The ubiquity of gender inequality is fueled by unconscious and systemic biases that hinder women’s success in the workplace. Although today’s circumstances are vastly different than those ten years ago —largely thanks to the reckoning that came in the last few years thanks to the ME TOO movement— there still are countless obstacles women (especially women of color) have to overcome in order to succeed in the workplace.
The Case for Female Sponsorship:
1. More Women Advance Up the Career Ladder
Senior-level women are much more likely to mentor and propel forward junior-level women - aka sponsor other women. SHRM reported that women are 73% more likely to mentor other women. McKinsey & Lean In’s Women in the Workplace Study also arrived at a similar conclusion, stating that 38% of senior-level women mentor or sponsor one or more women of color (compared to only 23% of senior-level men).
2. Better Policies Towards Diversity and Inclusion
Women leaders are also crucial for defining and embracing employee-friendly policies and programs that champion equality and diversity. As McKinsey & Lean In found, more than 50% of senior-level women say they consistently stand up publicly for gender and racial equality at work (vs. just 40% of senior-level men). In fact, 63% of women in senior leadership positions said they actively listen to the personal stories of women of color about bias and mistreatment (while only 42% of men in senior leadership said they did so).
3. Higher Profits and Performance When Women Are In Leadership Positions
In terms of why women leaders are vital for an organization as a whole —beyond the positive change that trickles down in culture and policies — research found that when an organization has a woman leader, profit increases. In 2020, a study titled Diversity wins: How inclusion matters found that when an organization has women leaders (directors, managers, etc.) its company profits and share performance are almost 50% higher.
4. Greater Sensitivity Towards the Female Experience
In the introduction of her best-selling book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg wrote about how vital it is to have women leaders within organizations. Sandberg shared an anecdote about when she was pregnant with her first child in 2004. At the time, she was leading Google’s online sales and operations groups. Google was growing extremely quickly and they had just moved their offices into a multi-building campus. One day she had to rush out of her office to make an important client meeting, but having parked on the other side of campus she tried to run -- which only caused her more nausea and morning sickness. The next day Sandberg marched into Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s office and explained that pregnant women needed reserved parking. Sandberg realized: “The other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, not wanting to ask for special treatment. Or maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed. Having one pregnant woman at the top-even one who looked like a whale-made the difference.” Thanks to her senior role, Sheryl Sandberg was able to stand up and demand change on behalf of all women, change that would positively impact the organization’s culture. Ensuring an organization has women in leadership positions allows them to become catalysts for change not just for other women, but for positive policies within the organization and its culture.
Beyond having leaders enact positive change, as someone holding a senior role in a company they have, the opportunity to be sponsors. As Heather Foust Cummings, a senior leader of Catalyst’s research and libraries, identified: “Mentors talk with you. Sponsors talk about you.” Thanks to their influence and success in the organization, a senior leader can champion an employee in a more effective way than by just mentoring them.
How To Be a Better Sponsor
Identify underrepresented and high potential talent
Be on the lookout to identify and connect with underrepresented employees who have proven track records and demonstrate initiative and motivation.
Listen, observe, and connect
Before offering advice, get to know your protege’s aspirations, objectives, and goals. Share your own experiences and the obstacles you had to overcome (but keep in mind that pathways to professional success can be vastly different).
Connect your proteges with opportunities
Keep an eye out for valuable career opportunities that could advance your protégé’s career.
Try setting short-term goals with your proteges, they can help both you and your protege identify the concrete and tangible benefits from the relationship.
Ensure candid and specific feedback
Make sure your protege receives candid and performance-based feedback, be it talking to their manager or project supervisor. Research proves that generally, women receive less feedback: men are 20% less likely than men to get difficult feedback that can help them improve their performance.
As author Joan Kuhl explained to Mika Brzezinski: “I think women are held back by vague feedback, they get a lot of feedback about their communication style or they need more presence in meetings, versus men get really skill-based feedback that helps them with their performance. It’s aligned to the business.”
Share your network
Beyond just sharing your experiences and connecting your sponsee with opportunities. Share your formal and informal networks and with warm introductions.