Despite solid gains in middle and senior management positions, women hold less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEO seats. According to studies like The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling, published by Harvard Business Review in 2011 and the 2018 TED talk by Morgan Stanley’s managing director, Carla Harris, it isn’t a conspiracy but a surprising lack of advocacy from both men and women in positions of influence that has lead to this situation. What makes it complicated is that women have more mentors assigned to them than men yet women are less likely to advance to leadership positions. The reason for this is that while having mentors help but mentorship is not enough to break the barriers. More than mentors, women and under-represented communities at workplaces need sponsorship to march ahead.

Mentors understand our career aspirations and help us identify and think through key questions. They are catalysts for broadening our professional horizons, crafting a vision and expanding our networks. Most importantly, they help us track and measure our progress over time. But sponsors have a seat at the table where key career decisions are made. If they are familiar with your work and can vouch for your character, they can also exert influence, mentors have a limited role in pulling you up to the next level. It is largely up to sponsors and how they bat for you.

It turns out that women have more than enough mentors but only half are as likely to have sponsors. A large number of ambitious women underestimate the pivotal role sponsorship plays in their advancement. More importantly, The Sponsor Effect study pointed out that even women who do grasp the importance of relationship capital are unable to cultivate it effectively. Many feel that getting ahead based on “who you know" is inherently unfair, even “dirty". This can be attributed in no small part to structural challenges, harassment and office gossip that women often have had to grapple with.

No matter what we feel about sponsorship, it is hard to contest that it matters. Sponsorship is far more than just knowing someone important. It is about cultivating a meaningful professional relationship on the basis of trust, performance and purpose.

More than numbers, the presence of a sponsor can be a huge motivating factor, especially for professionals from under-represented communities and women returning to work after a hiatus. This is what a Network Capital community member said about her sponsor: “I work at a large hedge fund in Hong Kong. My sponsor and I are the only two women on the floor. Although my firm offered great flexibility during my pregnancy, I was nervous coming back to office. I tried overcompensating in ways that left me surprised. Thankfully, my sponsor noticed my less than normal behaviour and took me out to lunch. That’s when I knew that I could focus on work without worrying about perceptions."

Almost all organizations have mentoring programs but very few have noteworthy results. These days, reverse-mentoring and peer-mentoring programs are fashionable. Some of them are well-intentioned and even yield promising results in the short term. But they are far from enough. Without sponsorship programs and structures, mentoring initiatives fall flat.

Setting up a transparent and accessible sponsorship program might not be easy but its tangible and intangible benefits far outweigh the short-term challenges.

Our tribe of mentors set us up for success but it is our sponsors, who vouch for us behind closed doors where they have a voice and we don’t have reach.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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