Sponsors Needed: Leveling the Playing Field for Women

portrait of Buisnesswoman Working with her colleaguesBy Jessica Titlebaum (Chicago)

A recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women,” reports on some of the challenges emerging women face in mentoring programs. It points out the difference between mentoring and sponsoring and says that men are better at finding career-building mentors than women.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the Executive Director at the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, which is an organization that helps businesses attract and retain female professionals. She stated that the article confirmed what has long been considered true – that informal relationships can be a source of dedicated commitment to help you succeed. She also distinguished the difference between sponsor and mentor relationships.

“Sponsorship is defined as the active engagement in someone else’s career development,” said Rikleen. “The mentor guides more, answers questions and is a shoulder for someone. Sponsorship is a more active form of mentorship.”

Rikleen explained that women need to get comfortable with seeking people out in a variety of ways.

“Women tend to be focused on the task at hand in the workplace while men focus on relationship building,” said Rikleen. “Women need to think more strategically about establishing relationships that will help them achieve that next level in their career.”

She also said that men are more comfortable at weaving their social and work relationships together to build on each other. In comparison, women compartmentalize and separate their social and work contacts.

“Think more holistically about all of your relationships,” she said. “You can be at a parent/teacher conference and sitting next to someone that runs a company.”

Identifying Sponsors

By definition, a sponsor is someone that has power within your organization and can assist in your career advancement. Before nurturing a relationship, you need to be able to identify these people within your network of contacts.

Rikleen says that mentors may not be in a position to help you get the promotion you are looking for.

“Ask yourself if this mentor is also someone that can help you achieve your career goals,” she said. “If the answer is no because the mentor does not have sufficient responsibility, you should have the conversation with your mentor about who you should be working with and how you can increase your exposure.”

Cynthia Zeltwanger is the founder and chief executive officer of C Zelt Enterprises, a management consulting and executive coaching firm. To increase your exposure within an organization she advised to get in front of other executives, not just your boss.

“If you are always working for the same manager, try getting on different projects so other executives can become familiar with your skills,” she said. “Someone that doesn’t know you is not going to put their credibility on the line.”

She also made a note to identify people of influence within an organization. “A sponsor needs to be influential and that does not necessarily mean they hold high profile positions, it means that people within the organization listen to them.”

Nurturing Relationships

After identifying who could help you advance, how do you establish those relationships?

Karen Lockwood is the founder of the Lockwood Group, which is an organization dedicated to sustaining diversity in business. She advised not to go in and initially ask to be mentored, although that is clearly what you want.

“Approach the person in various ways based upon their interests and needs,” said Lockwood. “Figure out how to have meaningful interactions with this person and let them know who you are.”

She further explained that women may have to prove themselves more than men and that, however unfair, you may need to make clear your talent.

“Go in equipped with information that they can use, find an article that relates to their work or a substantial resource for them,” she said. “Display unquestionable abilities and do something that is unique to catch their attention.”

Why The Differences in Mentoring Men and Women?

One key reason Lockwood believes there is a difference in the way men and women are mentored is in the conversations between mentors and mentees. “Casual conversations are good for mentoring but women don’t usually get those causal conversations from men who would be in a mentor role,” she said.


Lockwood believes is that men are often cautious to embark on a relationship with a younger woman, even if it is a business relationship.

“There is a discomfort level between male mentors and younger female mentees,” said Lockwood. “Men that listen carefully to sexual harassment concerns are hesitant to be alone with female mentees, this haunts them.”

She also believes that the typical bias issues still exist stunting a woman’s professional growth.

“For example, you will hear someone say that they can visualize this person in this role because they always see men in this role,” said Lockwood. “When someone says that they don’t think a women is ready what they are really saying is that they need to prove themselves twice.”

To combat this discrepancy, Lockwood tells women to claim their success.

“Find things you know you do well and offer those skills to other people,” she said. “Don’t wait for someone to give you the opportunity to show off your abilities, show them off yourself. Find out where they are, claim your power and use them!”

0 Response

  1. How I agree! We are so programmed by what we see on a regular basis. Remember the first time you ever saw a female firefighter or woman police officer? (You will if you are as old as me). That’s one reason why non gender specific language is so important – I’ve written about this on my blog. Actually not calling them policemen sent a subtle message.

    I agree that there are some specific issues re men and women which require careful management,but equally we women need to be very clear and upfront when we ask for advice. It could be win win as organisations develop the wonderful talents they have within and women get to advance! Just continue to be women and not act like men!!