How to make sponsorship work for women
By Jo Faragher on 13 October 2023
It’s no secret that progress in gender equality at senior level in UK businesses is moving at a snail’s pace. According to business advisory company BDO, the median gender pay gap in the UK will take 63 years to close, while the FTSE 100 won’t reach gender parity until 2076, according to a separate survey. Sponsorship can be that extra push that can be a game-changer for women’s progress – consulting firm McKinsey found that women can often encounter a “broken rung” in their first step up to manager, where for every 100 men who are promoted, there are only 87 women, and 73 women of colour. Research from CoQual shows that 68% of women who have a sponsor are happy with their career advancement, versus 57% who do not have one.
For organisations looking to boost women’s careers, sponsorship programmes can in many ways seem like an easy win: on the face of it, there are no set-up fees as all of the resources are internal, and they feel like standalone initiatives HR departments can easily tick off as having done something. “For some, sponsorship can seem like the easy way, that ‘if we do this programme, we support women’,” says Rebecca Hourston, Global Head of Coaching at Talking Talent. “But it’s not as easy as it seems to get it RIGHT.” She points to Herminia Ibarra’s Harvard Business Review insight in 2019 that “women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored”. Hourston adds that organisations can often feel more comfortable with mentoring because it feels “safer”: enter ‘pseudo-sponsorship’ – a sponsorship programme by name that has great mentoring but lacks the active ingredients of true sponsorship: protecting, preparing and pushing. “There are aspects of a sponsorship programme that can be productively outsourced and enable an organisation to reap the benefits because they take a deeper, systemic approach, but programmes done badly have the potential to backfire,” she says.
Carol Rosati OBE, DEI specialist and non-executive director, believes organisations’ understanding of what sponsors should be able to achieve has improved, as has accountability. “But there’s still an element of tick-boxing,” she says. Putting in guide-rails for sponsors such as training or parameters can help ensure both sides know what is likely to come from the relationship. “Support for sponsors is very important, it takes away that patriarchal, ‘nice thing to do’ element from the activity,” she explains. This is particularly important in larger businesses where it can be useful to provide a catalyst for sponsorship relationships, rather than expecting things to happen organically. “Men often develop networks from day one and sponsoring someone else is natural to them, whereas for women it can be low on their priority list, so it can be useful to have something to start that process off,” Rosati advises. Combining sponsorship with other support for women such as coaching can amplify its impact, she adds. Relying on sponsorship happening organically can also embed existing biases in organisations, with people drifting towards other people ‘like’ them, reinforcing ‘in-groups’ and outliers.
Increasing the impact of sponsorship programmes for women requires also being mindful of where there might be challenges, says Hourston. Logistics aside, there can be unspoken barriers around whether there might be sexual inappropriateness, which can “kill sponsorship dead”, she says. A younger female with an older, more powerful male executive can be a tricky dynamic, and formalising the programme can remove this because the working relationship becomes more “official”. Furthermore, having a framework can also overcome an expectation that people make sponsor/protege relationships at events such as work drinks, or that women can succeed simply by keeping their heads down and working hard, she adds (a concept known as ‘tiara syndrome’ highlighted in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In).
Support shouldn’t only focus on the person receiving the sponsorship either, Hourston insists. “There can be angst and confusion on both sides. Someone looking for a sponsor may wonder if it should be someone in their line, how senior someone should be, whether they should know the person already,” she says. ”A sponsor, on the other hand, may wonder what they’re expected to actually do and worry how it might reflect on them if their sponsee does badly.” Talking Talent provides a Sponsor Skills Framework for organisations looking to add some structure to these relationships.
Hannah Awonuga, group head of equality, diversity and inclusion at property company Knight Frank, sees sponsorship as part of the company’s ongoing DEI journey. It has already established a female mentoring programme and enhanced its family-friendly policies to ensure there is a solid base of support for women looking to progress their careers. “Something I have seen work well is reciprocal mentoring, where one person offers their depth of understanding of their lived experience, while another commits to helping their career,” she explains. “This has a link to sponsorship because that senior person is held accountable. But this doesn’t happen overnight, it can take 12 or 18 months before someone can use their professional currency to help someone get that step up.”
Sponsors supporting colleagues on stretch projects or giving them exposure to C-suite meetings and decisions through an “ex officio” role on the board means they can offer tangible value, she adds: “They contribute, read the board papers, have a voice at the table. That then builds a pipeline and they have an opportunity to shine. This is less about them being a woman and more about the value they can bring. The role of the sponsor is in providing these opportunities.”
Jenny Garrett OBE, career coach and leadership trainer, believes that sponsorship can be impactful in both directions. “As a sponsor you need to say ‘I believe in this person, they’re on the right route’, rather than questioning it,” she adds. “Women and minorities are too often questioned about their credibility; they get imposter syndrome, and the sponsor’s role is to help make things happen. But when you have sponsors who advocate for people from under-represented groups they get an insight of that experience, so they are in a powerful position to make change.” Central to this is understanding the other party’s experience and being prepared to ask questions and be curious, says Garrett: “The sponsor may not have faced the same challenges in their career, or claim that they ‘sacrificed everything’ to get where they are. It’s important to acknowledge that someone else might do things differently, being a sponsor is not about someone emulating your career.”
Crucially, offering sponsorship in isolation won’t address problems your organisation is having with gender equality. Nor will simply sending senior women or high potential employees on a leadership programme – this has to be addressed systemically in order to be sustainable. “We need to move away from ‘sending’ women on these programmes to accompanying them,” stresses Hourston. “Furthermore, women who have progressed themselves need to be ready to turn around and think about how they can help the people behind them.”
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