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Women need sponsorship, not mentorship, at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
You’re not alone. Photo: WikiCommons/Jadon Barnes

Having someone to support and guide you at work can make a huge difference when it comes to getting ahead in your career. Multiple studies have found that a positive, productive relationship with a mentor, who can share their knowledge and offer encouragement, can be really beneficial —particularly to women.

When so many workplaces have a diversity problem, mentorship can help women set up networks, give them ideas of what to aim for, and give a sense that someone is looking out for them.

Arguably, though, mentorship alone isn’t enough — women also need sponsorship.

Although the two sound very similar, there are several key differences. Mentors are people who take the time to help you navigate the working world. This might mean offering a friendly ear and advice when it comes to career choices, which in turn, can help build your confidence or boost self-esteem.

A sponsor plays more tangible role in the workplace, pushing you forward for promotions or pay rises and putting you forward for new positions. Sponsorship is less about someone helping you out before they simply like you — a sponsor is willing to invest in your career, rather than just play the part of a role model.

“Sponsorships can help individuals or groups by playing an advocacy role. Sponsors are often senior figures within a business, who bring leadership buy-in to programmes such as inclusion resource groups. They act as a sounding board and encourage courageous leadership, which can have an impact at every stage of a person’s career — even the very start,” says Deepa Somasundari, director of client success at global job site Indeed.

“If companies can mentor and sponsor historically underrepresented groups, they can expose a diverse group of individuals to careers they might not have considered in the past. First hand experience and support such promotes moving away from ‘culture fit’ towards ‘culture add’.”

In The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling, a 2011 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, the researchers explain the idea of sponsorship further.

It defines a sponsor as someone who advocates for the individual’s next promotion, as well as expanding the perception of what the person can do, making connections to senior leaders and promoting their visibility. Essentially, a sponsor has the power to endorse you, which is more likely to give you a leg up on the corporate ladder.

Perhaps most importantly, research has shown sponsorship has the potential to really boost a woman’s career. According to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who authored Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, sponsorship provides a statistical benefit of up to 30% for high profile assignments, promotions, and pay raises.

Research by women’s leadership nonprofit Catalyst has found effective sponsorship is critical to accelerating a woman’s career by getting her noticed by senior executives and being considered for a company’s top positions.

So far, so good – but the problem remains that few woman actually have sponsors. As Hewlett points out, men are 46% more likely than women to have a sponsor. This may, in part, be down to the fact that women simply aren’t given the opportunity, or that women want their work to speak for itself without the need for a sponsor. The reality though is that there are plenty of talented, qualified — but they still aren’t getting the top jobs.

Research shows women are also lacking mentors, too. A 2017 study by the global recruitment and management firm Egon Zehnder found just 54% of women have access to senior females who serve as mentors or informal sponsors throughout their career.

The researchers also found that women reported “lower rates of advocacy and mentorship as they got older” — but women in the C-suite reported using these tools at the highest rates.

“This suggests that if women do not reach a professional threshold by a certain age, either they stop tapping into these resources or their companies no longer make them as available,” the researchers found.

We all benefit from support and guidance from others at work, and mentors can help provide this. But with women holding just 24% of senior positions around the world, a figure which has dropped from 25% in 2017, sponsorship may the boost we need to level the playing field.

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