The rare cases of a woman being sponsored for the top slot by a powerful male tend to stick in one’s mind. Chosen in 2007 by PepsiCo Inc. chief executive officer Steven Reinemund to succeed him as CEO, Indra Nooyi wasn’t considered the top candidate. Picked by John McCain as his running mate on the Republican ticket in 2008, Sarah Palin wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Gender bender: US politician Sarah Palin.

Those last slippery rungs are extraordinarily difficult for women to climb. To be sure, at the most senior levels the competition is fierce and many men and women fail. But men reach the top in much more impressive numbers. Why?

Lack of push

A new study from the Center for Work-Life Policy, to be published next month by the Harvard Business Review, sheds new light on this question. Women who are top performers stall out not for lack of drive, but for lack of push. They simply don’t have the powerful backing needed to prepare them, propel them and protect them through the perilous straits of senior management.

In a word, women lack sponsors. While executive women have tons of mentors dispensing friendly advice, they’re half as likely as executive men to have a sponsor.

What is a sponsor? A sponsor is a powerful executive in the direct line of command who uses up chips on behalf of a protégé and advocates for the next promotion. They provide introductions to key clients, promote visibility with corporate bigwigs, and open the door to power.

Sounds straightforward—yet women have difficulty developing these powerful relationships. The new research uncovers some serious tripwires.

Misplaced beliefs

The first is that high-performing women frequently underestimate the pivotal role that relationships play in advancement, choosing to believe hard work and bottom line results will net them their due reward. Many feel that getting ahead based on who you know is an unfair, even dirty, tactic. This belief in meritocracy persists, even as they’re passed over for a plum assignment, a pay raise or a promotion.

The study also shows that women’s reluctance to seek out senior male sponsors may be amply justified. The typical sponsorship relationship —an older, married man spending one-on-one time, sometimes off-site and after-hours, with a younger, often-unmarried woman—can look a lot like an affair.

Power disparity

The greater the power disparity between the male and the female, the more intense the speculation becomes that the relationship is more than professional—with potential penalties for both. If the woman is subsequently promoted, her achievement may be undermined by office gossip.

The data in the new study are sobering: Fear of being suspected of an illicit sexual liaison causes 64% of senior male executives to avoid one-on-one contact with junior women; for the same reason, 50% of junior women hesitate to initiate or cultivate such contact with a male superior.

The good news is that the word on sponsorship is out and companies are experimenting with initiatives that make sponsorship much more available to high-performing women.

As companies step up their programmes, they should heed two warnings. First, sponsorship will only work if female protégés are given a crack at the real deal (sponsors) and not some watered-down version (mentors). Second, sponsorship will only work if companies confront head-on the damage done by illicit sexual relationships.

This needs to change. In a world where sponsorship is dangerous, it will not be used, and women will continue to stall out in middle management. Bloomberg

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. The opinions expressed are her own.

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