Though the number of women in the C-suite continues to steadily increase, the rate at which those numbers climb is significantly lower than many would like to see. One of the most effective ways to increase representation is for female executives to sponsor the next generation of promising women who can enact change in future boardrooms.
Today women in many fields are advancing the executive ranks faster and further than their predecessors, but what exactly are they doing to develop the female executive pipeline? To ensure the number of women in the C-suite continues to grow, it would behoove those with the ability and means to sponsor promising up-and-coming female employees.
Despite modest gains in recent years, women are still severely under-represented in corporate suites and boardrooms. In 2016, only 24% of international C-suite positions were occupied by women — a slight improvement from 16% in 2010. Though difficult to say whether women’s advances in corporate leadership result directly from other women’s help, women who receive mentorship or sponsorship are paying it forward. 32% of women say they have a mentor at work and 65% of those mentored go on to become mentors themselves, thus perpetuating the developmental cycle.
A prime example of paying forward lessons learned and offering expertise to promising women is Betsy Duke, chairman of the Wells Fargo Board of Directors and first female chairperson of a top U.S. bank. “Mentors,” Duke says, “help to develop the next generation. It’s important to embrace being a role model because people look at you [and they see that] and they say, ‘I can do that.’”
While mentorship programs have been around for a long time, and most of us are familiar with them, what exactly is sponsorship? How does a sponsor help others advance? And do women need sponsors more than men do?
The impetus is on us. If we want to develop the next generation of women, we need to step up and act as sponsors to help them.
Not your typical sponsor
A corporate sponsor isn’t the person to confide in about personal issues, but in many ways, a corporate sponsor can make all the difference between stalemate and growth.
Research has shown that women who speak up and promote themselves heavily in the workplace can be penalized. Men are used to highlighting their accomplishments and speaking up when they want more responsibility, visibility, or a promotion. This double standard has plagued women for decades.
Mentors help others, informally or formally, navigate their careers by providing guidance for career choices and decisions. But sponsors go further. A sponsor who uses strong influence to help a woman obtain high-visibility assignments or jobs can make a real difference in that woman’s career. By promoting another woman, you help her bypass the double standard we have all learned to live with for so long.
Which should you be?
Are corporate sponsorship programs common? Not really. In 2017, about half of US companies run women-oriented mentorship programs, but less than a third run sponsorship programs. If you are looking for ways to help other women advance, a formal sponsorship program may not be a ready option in your company. But that need not stop you from inquiring or putting in place a sponsorship.
As a sponsor you can:
• Connect protégés to career opportunities
• Advocate for a protégé’s advancement
• Publicly endorse protégés
• Expect high performance in return
• Help protégés confront and interrupt bias
• Prepare your protégé for the challenges in her executive roles
Keep this in mind: mentors advise; sponsors act. A sponsorship requires more time on behalf of both the sponsor and the protégé — but it can also be far more rewarding and increase the pipeline of female executives in your company.
Why be a sponsor?
Sponsoring can make you a more engaged, effective employee. This may sound counter-intuitive, until you consider the tightly knit sponsor-protégé relationship. Your protégé will keep you in touch with what’s happening at different levels in the organization; this, in turn, can lead to growth in your own career. A protégé can help you look at your environment and own role through a different set of eyes; your protégé’s approach to handling issues may in fact help improve your own.
But there is another good reason that tips the scales in favor of sponsorship: the personal pride and satisfaction that comes from helping another woman grow. Being a sponsor may prove one of the most rewarding aspects of your job and by helping develop the pipeline of the future female C-suite occupants, you have a chance to pay it forward and impact history.