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Want to move up? Not only do you need mentors, but a sponsor

Scotty Reifsynder

Much research has been done on the difference between men and women in the workplace. Men negotiate their salaries; women take what they’re offered. Men talk up their achievements; women downplay theirs. Men ask for what they want; women wait to be invited.

Add in the fact that most senior executives are men who tend to promote other men, a.k.a. “the old boy network,” and it’s no surprise that women make up 47 percent of the US labor force but only 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives.

To help level the playing field, women are encouraged to find mentors. But if their goal is to keep rising up the workplace ladder what they really need are sponsors: high-ranking executives who work to get them to the next level by introducing them to senior managers, helping them land challenging assignments, and advocating for their advancement. These relationships have formed naturally over the decades between men in corner offices and their junior counterparts, but have not translated to women.

“Sponsorship is the way it’s always worked — that’s how you end up with more men at the top,” said Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the French campus of the international business school Insead, who is an authority on sponsorship. Women, adds Ibarra, have been “mentored to death” in an attempt to close the gap, and yet they are less likely to get promoted than men.


This lack of upward movement happens in part because women’s mentors are not as high up as men’s, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding the role of women in business. Men are 46 percent more likely than women to have sponsors, according to the upcoming book “(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

“Men are more likely to be embedded in an informal network of relationships” based on similarities, Ibarra says. Women, on the other hand, are more of an “unknown quantity” to male leaders, she says. “And anyone who’s an unknown quantity is seen as being more risky.”


Contributing to this imbalance is the fact that women are more likely to seek out friendships at work, while men form strategic relationships that help their career, says Karen Sumberg, executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank in New York founded by Hewlett.

Women also tend to see getting ahead based on who they know as unfair, and are squeamish about asking for favors. “Women have this distaste for playing the game,” Sumberg says, instead preferring to let their hard work speak for itself. “But if nobody knows what you’re doing, it really doesn’t matter.”

Having the ear of someone high up has paid off for Carolyn Dumser, who started working in asset management at Deloitte six years ago. Krissy Davis, a partner in the firm’s audit and enterprise risk services practice in Boston, recently started taking a more active role in Dumser’s career — introducing her to other partners, taking her to meet high-level clients, and “pounding the table” to help her get ahead.

In May, Dumser won a national award given to rising female stars in the financial services industry, a recognition Dumser says she wouldn’t have received if it hadn’t been for Davis’s efforts.

“She gave me eminence in the marketplace,” Dumser says.


Sponsorships, however, can be tricky for women if their sponsor is a man, because some might view their relationship as an affair. To avoid the problem, workplace specialists say, both parties should be vocal about the fact that the relationship is professional; they should meet in the cafeteria instead of a bar, and go out for breakfast instead of dinner.

For companies that want to retain people of color, sponsorships can also be a critical tool. Having a sponsor boosts engagement and retention for diverse workers, many of whom say they have to “compromise their authenticity” to advance, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. More than half of African-Americans with a sponsor are satisfied with their rate of advancement, according to the center, compared with 35 percent of those who don’t have an advocate. And yet only 8 percent of people of color have sponsors, compared with 13 percent of Caucasians.

The lower-level employee isn’t the only one who benefits from a successful sponsorship. If the protégé earns accolades and promotions, the sponsor gets credit for spotting talent.

Most agree that it’s better for sponsorships to develop organically, but formal programs can also help a diverse group of people advance. State Street Corp., for instance, set a three-year goal to increase the number of women and minority senior staffers by 5 percentage points by the end of 2014. To get there, the financial services company identifies high-potential women and people of color at the vice president level, and their managers work with human resources officers to act as sponsors — discussing promotion criteria, creating development plans, and offering executive education.


Currently, 52 percent of entry-level positions are held by women, but women make up only 24 percent of senior and executive vice presidents; people of color represent 35 percent of new hires, but only 7 percent of senior and executive vice presidents.

If State Street achieves its goal, its executives will better represent its global workforce, and its clients, says Alison Quirk, chief human resources and citizenship officer: “We want to ensure that the composition of our leadership team reflects the diversity and ethnicity of the areas of the world where we operate.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.