Sponsorship Remains a Murky Topic for Many

iStock_000010363335XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

By now everyone has heard about sponsorship and how it can expand women’s career opportunities, right?

Not quite.

Despite sponsorship being a “buzz-word” in the women’s career advancement space for the past few years, the topic remains somewhat mysterious for a lot of people. At least, that’s what our latest study, “Women in Technology: Leaders of Tomorrow,” [PDF] suggests.

We polled almost 200 junior and mid-level women in technology jobs for the report, which was sponsored by Accenture. Our respondents provided us with a lot to work with – most notably, almost two-thirds said they hope to have a senior management or C-suite job someday. By most measures, these women aren’t suffering from the so-called lack of ambition that many have blamed for leadership diversity’s stalling progress. In fact, you could say these women seem to be “leaning in” pretty hard already.

Even still, most of the women who took our survey didn’t feel their companies were really “leaning in” to them in equal measure. In fact, only a quarter (24.5 percent) said that their company was “walking the talk,” by providing support that matched up with the verbal promises made by management to support women.

One of the results of haphazard or half-effort approaches to providing career development opportunities and training for women is that people don’t hear correct or full answers about what can actually help propel them to the top.

One of these things is sponsorship. Our research revealed a lot of confusion amongst our respondents about what sponsorship really entails. Sponsorship is so important for career advancement for everyone, but especially women – studies by Catalyst and the Center for Talent Innovation have confirmed this.

Women need to get a clear picture of what it looks like since they’re the ones who stand to lose the most if their understanding of sponsorship remains blurred. It’s up to companies and corporate development programs to demystify sponsorship for their female workforces. Here’s what we found.

Sponsorship Questions

We provided this definition to our respondents before asking them questions about sponsorship: “A sponsor is someone who champions your career advancement, nominating you for stretch assignments or promotions and talking you up in the discussions you’re not a part of.”

About three quarters of our respondents (77 percent) said they had heard the term “sponsorship” before. A quarter (25.5 percent) said they had a sponsor, while 18.5 percent said they weren’t sure. But when we asked questions about what was really going on with our respondents and senior people they work with, it seems there may be a lot more sponsorship going on that initially stated.

We asked our respondents if they have had a more senior person at their company nominate them for a special assignment or advocate for their promotion – which is effectively what a sponsor does – and over two-thirds (68.8 percent) said they had experienced this. The flip side of sponsorship is that the protégé feels responsible for supporting their sponsor by coming through on those special assignments or promotions, and 79.3 percent said they had this experience.

Our research indicates that while only a quarter of our respondents believe they have a sponsor, it seems that over two-thirds seem to have something like a sponsor-protégé relationship with someone at their company without realizing it.

Why It Matters

So maybe women are being sponsored after all. Great news, right? Again, that’s a little uncertain. We don’t know if the people who are championing our respondents for stretch assignments or promotions are the same ones our respondents feel compelled to support in return.

But beyond that connection, this data reveals two challenges. First of all, if women are missing the picture that sponsorship involves a deliberate relationship you build and nurture over time, they may not be reaping the full advantages of sponsorship. Rather they could simply accepting one-off wins when they present themselves. It is the sum of those wins that propels you to the top. Relationships matter at the senior levels, and those relationships with sponsors and other protégés are the connections that build a powerful career.

Secondarily, even though we talk about sponsorship a lot (and we’ve certainly written about it on The Glass Hammer quite a few times), our research suggests that many women may be having trouble visualizing what sponsorship really looks like in practice. We need to share more stories and examples of sponsor-protégé relationships and how they benefit both parties over the years. That way, women and men can get a better understanding of how to leverage these relationships over a long-term career.

2 Responses

  1. In my experience women often expect to have a more formal relationship. ‘Hi, would you like to be my sponsor’, while in reality it is much more of an organic process. Just map out all your key relationships, who is willing to help put your name forward? Make sure you are in touch with them regularly and drop your achievements, or invite them to an event you are running, or a project meeting, so they can see what you are doing. Also pick up the phone, and just let them know how it went. It’s like a functional friendship. Men tend to do this differently than women, but we can have functional friendships too. Just try it!