Sponsorship, Not Mentorship, Is Key to Advancing Your Career

By Deanna Cuadra

Despite more companies presenting diversity and equity at the forefront of their values, women still find themselves underrepresented at the executive level and are missing out on the compensation and influence that comes with it.

Less than 11% of senior executives are women among the world’s largest Fortune 500 companies, according to data from marketing communications firm Weber Schandwick — and that trend isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Fewer women held senior and even junior level positions in 2021 than they did in 2019, according to a study by IBM. To make matters worse, IBM also found that only 30% of junior women managers reported having sponsors or mentors, which can prove essential to career advancement.

Yet mentorship alone won’t make a big enough difference, says Solange Charas, founder and CEO of human capital analytics company HCMoneyball and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Instead, women need to seek out sponsorship, where the sponsor takes responsibility for helping their sponsee get promoted to higher-level positions.

“A mentor focuses on your personal and professional development, but a sponsor focuses on your career advancement,” says Charas. “Things have to happen in organizations so that women get sponsorships rather than mentorships.”

Charas has researched why women are underrepresented in senior-level leadership in the U.S., along with Rubina F. Malik, a senior assistant professor of business administration at Morehouse College and learning and development advisor at Malik Global Solutions, and Lauren Ledbetter Griffeth, a leading specialist for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia.

EBN spoke with Charas, Malik, and Griffeth to explore why women may be subconsciously holding themselves back from advancement and success, and how sponsorship can open doors in a professional world that is created for men, by men.

Charas: It’s passive versus active. A sponsor will introduce you to others and promote you. People that have a sponsorship usually go farther than people that are simply mentored. But people who are mentors to others don’t expect anything in return, whereas people who sponsor expect something in return. It seems men not only implicitly understand that quid pro quo, but they verbalize it. Women may not recognize that there has to be a quid pro quo and they don’t offer it to get a sponsor.

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Griffeth: For example, imagine sitting around the table when the candidate walks out of the room of a job interview. The person who is interviewed has someone at that table who is their sponsor. The sponsor would say, ‘You need to hire this person. They’re awesome. I have a relationship with them. I’ve seen their work.’

How does gender play a role in the way women approach career advancements?
Charas: Women tend to skew more towards being focused on the benefit of the collective. You can think about it as the hunter-gatherer difference. Women work in teams, while men remain individually focused even while part of a team. Speaking in broad generalizations is always dangerous, but this is the world we live in.

Griffeth: What I’ve noticed is how all these women, who were my peers, have entry-level positions and mid-level positions, but not executive-level positions. A woman who I knew was exceptionally talented, lost a higher-level position because they gave it to a guy who had relationships she didn’t have. When it comes to sponsorship and mentorship, these women were getting mentored to be trained to be in this role, when they really just needed somebody to advocate for them.

Malik: Women tend to work hard so they can be seen and rewarded, versus asking to be rewarded. I have a friend and peer, and he applied to be a CEO. I thought to myself, ‘But he doesn’t even have CEO experience.’ I say this to him, and he just says, ‘Well, they can say no to me.’ Meanwhile, if I don’t have one little thing, I won’t apply.

How have you seen this mindset reflected in your own lives and the lives of your peers?
Charas: I was a senior executive in a company as head of HR. I saw all the salaries, and I was the only woman on the executive management team of eight people. If you averaged out all of the salaries of the eight people, I got paid 50% of the average. I lived with it. I didn’t say anything.

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Malik: I remember my boss when I was in HR. She fought to have a seat at the [executive] table. It took her over 20 years.

Griffeth: That’s because HR is usually considered the “woman position” on the executive team too. That’s the executive role we get to do.

In my own field, there are only 14 women who are deans of colleges of agriculture [in the U.S], and 150 positions women could possibly fill. I asked them about critical incidents that influenced their leadership. Women who have survived are extremely tough. They had to prove themselves over and over again. They’ve gotten multiple advanced degrees. They published 20% more papers than someone else that entered that role. They would cut their hair and not wear makeup because they didn’t want to appear feminine. They even tried to lower their voice tenor.

What is your advice to women as they work to accelerate their careers?
Charas: We are trying to signal to women that you may have to behave differently in the world until we get more women in senior leadership roles where women can help women — and not because they want something in return. But we can’t change the system from the outside.

Personally, I don’t think I ever had a sponsor because it’s not in my nature to promise something that I don’t know for sure that I can deliver. I’ve always come to relationships asking if this is the right thing to do for everybody involved. But that’s not the same game men are playing. Women need to know how to play the game so that there are enough women that get promoted so that we can change the system.

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Malik: We’re in a world where there aren’t many women here to pull somebody up. Old white men reach down and pull people from in their community and from people who look like them. More CEOs and higher-ups need to be allies for women. Put them in the spotlight and get them opportunities to be seen.

Charas: When women are elevated, society is elevated, which means men benefit as well. We need to do this as a partnership and we need men to be our allies. We’re not fighting against them. We are fighting for parity.

What kind of advice do you wish you could have given yourself when you first started your career?
Malik: Ask for what you want and negotiate.

Charas: Don’t dumb yourself down. There’s no reason for you to play small because you’re a woman. Play big.

Griffeth: You’re ready. We are questioning ourselves all the time, but you’re ready. You have probably prepared, worked harder, and gotten yourself farther than you ever could have imagined.

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