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Nearly three-quarters of executives pick proteges who look just like them

A new report by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that few professionals pick proteges, or people to “sponsor,” of a different race or gender. (iStock)

The #MeToo movement has led to the ouster of powerful men, the revelation of long-secret bad behavior and the emergence of an empowering social movement.

But it has also led to unintended consequences. As several media reports have chronicled, the movement has struck fear in the hearts of some professional men, leading them to avoid close relationships with or distance themselves from women at work in a way that could hinder their female colleagues' careers. Nowhere is this more important than at the top, where leadership consultants have long touted the importance of being “sponsored” by a senior executive who’s willing to do more than just offer informal “mentoring” advice, and instead put their own reputation on the line and advocate on behalf of a more junior rising star.

A new report from the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank focused on research about leadership and diversity issues, offers a reminder of just how rare it is for people to choose proteges who don’t look like them. In a new report released Tuesday that surveyed more than 3,200 college-educated employees nationally who work in white-collar jobs, it found that 71 percent of those who identified as sponsors said their protege was the same race or gender as their own. It built on past research that had found 58 percent of women and 54 percent of men admitted to choosing a protege because they “make me feel comfortable.”

The report was the first time the CTI had asked sponsors whether their protege was a different race and gender than they are, so there is no historical trend with which to compare it. Although it does not say the #MeToo movement is leading to more or fewer sponsorships between senior men and junior women, it does cite research from Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” organization, which found that male managers have become three times as likely to report being uncomfortable mentoring women and twice as likely to say they’re uneasy working alone with a woman.

The new research “reinforces what we’ve known on a gut level for years,” said Julia Taylor Kennedy, senior vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation. “People transfer power to others who make them feel comfortable.”

Even though many companies are trying to improve diversity, she said, “our unconscious biases draw us to people like ourselves.”

The survey looked not only at top executives but at people across all levels of white-collar jobs, so she says it’s unlikely that the outcome is simply the result of there being a lopsided demographic — namely, white men — at the top of the org chart.

She said some companies, such as Johnson & Johnson and Cisco, have built “sponsorship” programs that either require or at least urge executives to pledge they’ll choose proteges who are different than their own demographic. “Companies are getting better at designing these programs,” she said, and helping executives understand there’s a “really broad set of dividends” when they choose someone unlike themselves.

Just one sexual harassment claim can tarnish a company's image

But too few executives are willing to take those risks in the #MeToo era, Taylor Kennedy and others said. She’s heard from companies in their network that some men are being cautious of developing close mentorship relationships with female colleagues, even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. “Not wanting to be one-on-one with women, or not wanting to be in a room with a woman — I don’t think a lot of male leaders consciously connect that obstacle with career advancement for women,” she said in a recent interview.

One problem, Taylor Kennedy said, is that some executives look for proteges who will help them get an ear to the ground and understand more about the business via junior professionals who will be candid with them. Yet to get that to happen, people need the kind of trust that can be built only from spending time one-on-one. One CEO, she recalled, said: “ ‘I choose my proteges based on people who are going to be straight with me; who are really going to tell me when I have a bad idea.’ But no one is going to tell a CEO in front of someone else they have a bad idea.”

Jonathan Segal, an employment lawyer in Philadelphia, said he’s had clients suggest that some of their male managers have asked if they can travel separately from female colleagues, and he has heard of another manager who won’t close his door when he’s alone with a female co-worker. “How do we tell him that’s not okay?” the client has asked him. He’s even held training programs with clients he calls “safe mentoring.”

If men back away too much, “number one, you’re denying her opportunities, and number two, you’re also creating circumstances where you’re trying to avoid a claim but you’re actually setting yourself up for one,” he said. Another client in the nonprofit sector, he said, is actively monitoring whether any senior leaders seem to be avoiding women to mentor or sponsor.

If male leaders disengage from their female colleagues, the CTI’s Taylor Kennedy said, they won’t be able to build the trust that’s needed to make a bet on their career. “Stepping back from a close professional relationship with a colleague — that can really damage women’s access to those positions,” she said.

Dig deeper: Race + Career

Want to explore how a person’s race can affect their career? Check out our curated list of stories below.

Context matters: What happens when people confuse you for someone else

Psychologists say people have difficulty recognizing others who are a different race than their own.

How companies are trying to increase diversity in their ranks

In a recent House Financial Services Committee hearing, seven major bank CEOs, all white men, were asked if they believed their successor would be a woman or person of color. No one raised their hand.

Understanding why there are so few executives of color

A survey found that nearly three-quarters of executives are less likely to choose proteges who are of a different race or gender.

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