by Nancy Guzenhauser, 2012 EBG Summer Associate
While the importance of having a sponsor to help encourage and propel one’s career is well-documented, women are still more reluctant to use a sponsor than men. The Center for Talent Innovation has conducted two studies – one in the U.S. and one in the U.K. – about the “sponsor effect.” The U.S. study found that sponsorship confers a statistical benefit of up to 30 percent in terms of more stretch assignments, promotions, and pay raises. Both studies found that women are significantly less likely than men to use a sponsor in their careers.
A sponsor is different from a mentor (and many women do have mentors). According to the studies, a sponsor is someone who uses chips (built-up favors or persuasive clout) on his or her protégé's behalf and advocates for his or her next promotion as well as doing at least two of the following: expanding the perception of what the protégé can do; making connections to senior leaders; promoting the protégé’s visibility; opening up career opportunities; offering advice on appearance and executive presence; making connections outside the company; and giving advice. By contrast, a mentor works behind-the-scenes to advise, rather than act as a driving force in one’s career opportunities.
Women comprise one-third of senior management positions in the U.S.; however, women only comprise 3 percent of chief executive positions of Fortune 500 companies. Women tend to “get stuck in the marzipan layer, the talent-rich tranche just below the executive suite.” Lacking a sponsor, and relying solely on “exemplary talent and unflagging dedication,” is one reason, the study suggests, that women do not propel to the C-suite.
Why do women have fewer sponsors? The authors note the “asking problem” as a strong reason. As a whole, men are more likely to ask for things – salary raises, quid pro quo exchanges from networking contacts, to be invited to networking events, for more and greater difficultly work – whereas women tend to still rely on “an invitation to the party.” Additionally, the study found that 77 percent of women value career moves based on meritocracy rather than reliance on networking/contacts, which was viewed to be “playing dirty.” Meanwhile, men have grasped the idea that using networking and sponsorship relationships is integral to achieving the careers they want. While sponsorship cannot be forced, the authors suggest that women should put themselves in situations where potential sponsors can get to know them.
Not only do women use fewer sponsors than men, but the study also indicates that women perceive men to be better sponsors. Women in the study explained that they prefer a male sponsor because men are better connected, are more powerful, know how to succeed, and have more time to sponsor than women. Women sometimes choose male sponsors simply because a female is not available to act as a sponsor; however, the perception that men are better sponsors is just that. Junior women find that men do not have the time and are not willing to “spend their chips” on them.
It is a double-edged sword though as both junior women and potential male sponsors fear that sexual tension will make the sponsorship ineffective. Women cite the sexual tension underlying such relationships and fearing negative perception as a barrier to entering sponsorship relationships, despite overwhelmingly preferring men to women as sponsors. Men also are hesitant to enter a one-on-one sponsorship with junior women because of a fear of a sexual harassment claim. Interestingly, this is uniquely an American problem; only 38 percent of British men indicated that they would be hesitant to enter a sponsorship with a junior female, compared to 64 percent of men in the U.S.
Many companies have invested in sponsorship programs for both women and minorities. These programs help connect women at all levels of their careers with sponsors. The sponsors and the sponsees are not the only people who benefit from the relationship; the company itself will foster a positive environment, where people are more likely to feel invested in the company, and will help build driven leaders within the company.
Readers: We would like to get your reactions and thoughts. Are you reluctant to seek a sponsor? If so, why? Is reliance on networking/contacts enough to move you up in ranks? Do you agree with the respondents to the cited study that a “meritocracy” trumps networking in career advancement?