The ultimate sponsor: Obi Wan Kenobi and his protege.( Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox) The ultimate sponsor: Obi Wan Kenobi and his protege.( Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)


There have been moments throughout my career, as I dutifully toiled in relative obscurity, that I can remember sorely wishing for one thing: Obi Wan Kenobi.

The yearning wasn’t so much about learning to use the force, though that would have been cool. But at particularly bleak times, I found myself hoping for someone older and wiser who could help guide me through what felt like confusing and often perilous waters. Someone with more experience who perhaps could recognize that prized ineffable quality – call it “talent” or “potential” – that you often have difficulty seeing in yourself, who could not only urge you on, but help clear the way.

Over the years, I’ve certainly had mentors who were generous with their time and kept plentiful boxes of tissues in their offices. I’ve had supporters and cheerleaders. And I’m grateful for all those who’ve given me opportunities. But it wasn’t until I read about Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s new research in her book, “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor,” that I understood what I had been yearning for all those years was an advocate.

A sponsor, Hewlett writes, is someone —  like Obi Wan — who has some “juice.” They don’t just want you to do well, they have the power to throw opportunity your way to make sure that you can. And unlike a mentor, who typically says his or her door is always open when you want to seek them out, true sponsorship happens behind closed doors, when you’re not there.

A sponsor puts your name forward for a challenging position or assignment. They stick up for you, make introductions and make you and your work visible. In short, Hewlett argues, the informal networks created through sponsorships are the way power has always been transferred.

And because like tends to favor like, she says, those in power, who have been typically older white men, have tended to transfer power to those most like them — younger white men.

That, Hewlett said, has led to statistics that she flattens audiences with in her presentations: Women make up about half the workforce, but only 14 percent of senior management, and only a handful of Fortune 500 CEOs. People of color make up about 36 percent of the workforce, but a mere 4.2 percent serve on corporate boards, according to the Center for American Progress.

Through the years, I’ve heard various explanations for the dearth of women in powerful positions: They tend to work fewer hours than men. True. They are still primarily responsible for home and family. True. Flex policies and lateral or “mommy track” moves are more acceptable for women than men. True. Women just aren’t as ambitious. Or as smart. Or committed. What?

On those last points, a plethora of social science research, surveys and just plain common sense show how wrong-headed those notions are. Research by the nonprofit Catalyst has controlled for children, levels of ambition, education and experience and still found significant gaps in pay and promotions between similar groups of men and women.

But these notions that women are somehow not cut out for leadership are part of the unconscious bias that powerfully and silently rules our workplaces.

“Across the board, women aren’t getting the same opportunities as men, though they want them, so clearly assumptions are being made,” said Anna Beninger, a senior research associate at Catalyst who has been tracking 10,000 MBA graduates of elite universities in the United States, UK and Canada to study the roots of the gender gap. “Managers are making assumptions about women and what they aspire to, without ever even talking to them about it.”

And that, Beninger, Hewlett and others say, is why sponsorship is so important. Having someone in power who knows who you are, and has taken the time to know what you want, someone who values and appreciates not only the work you do, but the potential you have, can go a long way to rewiring workplace cultures and opening up that informal, relationship-based old boys’ network to encompass everyone.

So, what to do?

First, on the organizational level make the unconscious bias conscious, says Ellen Ostrow, a licensed psychologist and founder of Lawyers Life Coach.

Ostrow, who works primarily with law firms, trains managers and leaders to understand that the brain is wired to easily sort like with like, and that millennia of cultural conditioning have programmed a majority of us to more easily associate men with careers and women with home and family.

Then she shows how those automatic assumptions can end up creating what she calls “systemic differences in training, support, introductions, evaluations and opportunities.”

“I’ve gone through firms’ evlalutions and you can see the systemic differences in the conclusions they draw: A man has to do something once and he’s seen as partner material. A woman does something once, and I see, ‘Well, she’s done a good job, let’s see if she can do it again,” Ostrow said. “Women are evaluated on performance. Men are evaluated on potential. A sponsor is someone who can step in and say, ‘No no no, she has a lot of potential, too.’

“The idea is, if you sponsor enough women into leadership roles,” Ostrow added, “You’re going to start cutting through the stereotypes about women as leaders, because you will see women leading.”

Hewlett has a host of suggestions for both organizations and individuals to encourage sponsorship.

But perhaps the one that struck me most – because it has been so hard for me to do over the years – is that just as firms need to make unconscious bias visible, women and people of color need to make themselves more visible.

I was raised as a good, Catholic girl. I behaved in school. I pleased the teacher. I was not outspoken or boastful. Though I entered the workforce in the 1980s, a scant 10 years after women en masse began working in fields previously held by men, I didn’t want any favors, or to be seen as a quota hire. I wanted to be judged on my own merit. But I’d been taught to not to toot my own horn, that good work would be noticed and rewarded.

Well, in school, perhaps. In the real world, yes and no. My mantra over the years became, as office politics and sticky controversies swirled around me that I wanted no part of, “Keep your head down and do good work.”

In Hewlett’s eyes, I was not only waiting for Obi Wan, I was waiting for a crown. Waiting, like a good girl, to be recognized for good work is what she calls “The Tiara Syndrome.” And it afflicts primarily women.

Ellen Dwyer, a partner and head of the sponsorship initiative at the law firm, Crowell & Moring, laughed at a recent event on sponsorship at the firm about how many times women gather in bathrooms, rolling their eyes at something boastful and self-promotional that a male colleague has said that a female colleague would find distasteful.

But Anna Beninger of Catalyst has a fairly easy yet effective solution for women who are brag-averse: E-mail.

“It can be as simple as someone thanks you in an e-mail for the work you’ve done, then you forward that to your manager,” she said. “That’s not being boastful. That’s letting your accomplishments be known.”

So I do that. I try not to wait for a crown or a please-the-teacher pat on the head. I realize that perhaps Obi Wan doesn’t know I’m out here, and may need some help finding me. And, more importantly, now that I’ve been at this awhile, I see, too, that it’s my turn to reach out to others, to advocate for and sponsor those who are just starting out.

It’s my turn to be Obi Wan. And now I know I need to do more than offer advice. I really do need to use the force.