Women, it’s time to get a sponsor.
What may in effect sound like a slight distinction actually has major implications. Research substantiates that women tend to lag behind men when it comes to promotions, even when women have mentors. Yet when women’s mentors are high ranking—that is to say, when they fall into the ‘sponsor’ category—women are just as likely as men to get promoted. As the Catalyst study authors note, a sponsor “can propel a protégé to the top of a list or pile of candidates or even eliminate the list itself.”
While sponsors have many roles, including protector, advocate and coach, what most people don’t know is that sponsors can have a major impact on how and if we negotiate on our own behalf. A study conducted by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett explored this aspect. She found, first of all, that both men and women who have sponsors behind them are more likely to ask their managers for a stretch assignment. Without a sponsor, 43 percent of men and 36 percent of women will ask for one; but with sponsor support, the numbers rise, respectively, to 56 percent and 44 percent. Similarly, men and women with sponsors in their corner are more likely to ask for raises than those without.
Given that negotiation conversations, whether about a plum assignment or an increase in pay, are the most materially significant dealings we have on the job, Hewlett’s numbers say a lot. As I’ve written about before, women are already less likely—four times less so—to initiate workplace negotiations than men are, a factor that may be aggravated by women’s tendency to think that meritocracy is king. Hewlett’s survey revealed that a full 77 percent of women think hard work, education and long hours (not relationships or connections) lead to advancement.
As awareness increases about the importance of sponsors, it seems nothing should hold women back from reaching out and engaging these champions. And yet, finding a sponsor isn’t that simple. While it’s commonplace for a protégé to initiate and propel the relationship with a mentor, in sponsorship the dynamic is often reversed. Here, it’s the sponsor that often does the choosing.
And if social psychology tells us anything, it’s that the similarity among two people is a significant factor in encouraging interaction. That can translate to the fact that men, who make up the majority of high-ranking executives, may be more likely to help other men, shutting women out of a high-ranking inner circle without realizing it. What’s more, professional women can easily find themselves in a “husband/wife” or even “father/daughter” dynamic with older male colleagues.