Blogs / 10 Jun 2022 5 min

Want more women in leadership? Sponsor them.

By: Shazma Ahmed, Shape Talent Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant

Across the EU women remain significantly under-represented in leadership, accounting for only 7.9% of CEOs and 20.7% of Executives. But the problem starts much earlier. Despite gender balance at graduate level in many industries, for every 100 men that are promoted to first line leader, only 79 women are promoted[i].

Efforts and initiatives to achieve gender parity in the workplace have been at play for some time now, why is it then, that the lack of representation of women at senior levels still exists? Of course, there are a number of factors at play contributing to the continued disparity, as we describe in our Three Barriers model, and one important barrier is lack of sponsorship.

What is sponsorship and how is it different to mentoring?

According to Herminia Ibarra, an organisational behaviour professor at London Business School, “a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, whereas a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you”[ii]. Mentors are typically people more senior with more experience or expertise. They will use their expertise to guide and advise their mentee, without necessarily using their political capital.

A sponsor, by contrast, will hold a degree of power and influence and will use that influence to help the sponsoree, whether that be through actively advocating for the sponsoree, providing access to their own network, or providing an endorsement for crucial career opportunities. Sponsorship is something that arises organically in the workplace: a positive word during talent reviews or promotion discussions; taking a chance on a lesser-known talent. It happens all the time, without formal programmes, however, as the Centre for Talent Innovation found, men are 25% more likely than women to be the beneficiaries of sponsorship. And at senior levels, this rises to 50%[iii]. And this matters. A lot. Without a sponsor’s advocacy in senior executive circles and closed-door succession discussions, women are not always equally considered for opportunities.

What makes an effective sponsorship programme?

Organisations are awash with mentoring programmes, but very few have formal sponsorship programmes. At Shape Talent, we’ve used our 20 years of expertise to design and implement sponsorship programmes for clients around the world. Here are some tips on what makes an effective sponsorship programme:

  1. Clarity of objectives. What are you trying to achieve through sponsorship? Is it help in accelerating career progression? This will influence the people you will need as sponsors. It is also important to ensure both sponsors and sponsorees are clear on the objectives and their roles. We commence our programmes with a joint sponsor/sponsoree onboarding session.
  2. Careful matching of sponsors and sponsorees. Ideally, the sponsor should be in a position to support the sponsoree in the function/part of the business that the sponsoree is looking to grow in to. There is little point matching sponsors who don’t have influence in this area. Also, sponsors need to be interested in developing women, and open to learning – this isn’t just about ‘teaching’ – most sponsors learn a lot from their sponsorees, so the programme can sometimes have the side benefit of reverse mentoring.
  3. Development of sponsors. To support sponsors who are often new to this, we bring them together three times a year in a confidential forum to allow them to exchange ideas and learn from each other. We sometimes also have a previous sponsor/sponsoree pair come and share their learnings and tips with new sponsors, which is incredibly powerful.
  4. A strong support crew. It is important to have the HR team on board, clear on the objectives and criteria for sponsors, to help with the matching. HR can play an important role in fielding questions and resolving the occasional mismatch, to help ensure the programme runs smoothly.

What makes a good sponsor?

The role of a sponsor comes with a range of responsibilities that include aspects of mentorship as well as advocacy on behalf of the sponsoree. Professor Ibarra refers to sponsorship as a spectrum[iv] with mentoring at one end – providing advice, support or coaching – and advocacy and sponsorship at the other end – publicly advocating for promotion opportunities and helping to raise the individual’s profile and reputation. Key activities of a sponsor are:

  1. Sharing insider information and tips using experience of the ‘unspoken rules’ on how to get ahead.
  2. Sharing one’s network by making targeted introductions and connections to influential people.
  3. Looking out for and providing access to crucial learning experiences or career enhancing opportunities.
  4. Endorsing and raising their profile through speaking up and reinforcing the sponsoree’s credentials, achievements and strengths.
  5. Providing developmental feedback and challenge, including frank and constructive feedback, in private, whilst
  6. Protecting their reputation in public.

Effective sponsorship programmes take time to build, but the potential rewards are worth it. With proper implementation, sponsorship can help accelerate the progression of women and start to address gender equality at leadership level.

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[i] McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org ‘Women in the Workplace 2019’

[ii] Ibarra, H. (2019). A lack of sponsorship is keeping women from advancing into leadership.’ Harvard Business Review. August 19, 2019.

[iii] Centre for Talent Innovation ‘Sponsor Effect: UK 2021’

[iv] Ibarra, H. (2019) Don’t Ask For Mentors, Ask For Sponsors.’ Forbes September 2, 2019.