How to mentor or sponsor women — without sending the wrong message
Questions about women in the workplace usually go like this: Why aren’t women promoted at the same rate as men? Why aren’t more women on corporate boards? Why aren’t more women heading up companies? Why aren’t women paid as much as men for doing the same job? Why are so few women in the C-suite? Why aren’t more women in STEM jobs, where the real money is?
All these “why aren’t women” queries lead to the ultimate question: Is there something wrong with women? According to a Harvard Business Review study, the answer is "no" (obviously). In an experiment to uncover differences between the genders, women and men were tracked by digital communication and sensor technology during their workday.
Researchers assessed the data and found no difference in behavior between female and male employees. Women had similar numbers of associates, spent the same amount of time with senior leaders, had the same performance ratings and spent their time doing the same things as men in similar positions. The conclusion? Women didn't perform differently — they were treated differently.
The question, then, is why do men move up in their careers more frequently? And who's there to help them?
Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives, told HR Dive that men have backers who create opportunities for them and clear the way for their upward mobility. Women often lack such advocates, like people higher up in organizations who want to sponsor them. And because women are treated differently from men, they’re frequently denied development opportunities.
Spence cites a study in which nearly all mentored male graduates with MBA’s started their upward climb in mid-level positions, while most female graduates with MBA’s started their careers further down the ladder.
Sponsors versus mentors
Mentoring and sponsoring are different concepts and have different connotations for women, says Spence. Rosalie Harrison, international management consultant at Borderless, an international executive talent search and leadership consulting firm, agrees. Harrison says "mentoring," "sponsoring" and "coaching" serve different functions, which are outlined below.
Mentoring is the most personal of the concepts. A good mentor would typically be someone who could:
- Help me understand my (professional) self;
- Help me identify a preferred operating style;
- Help me understand where I might need to change;
- Give me a place to express my fatigue and frustration; and
- Give me a place to express my self-doubt without negative career ramifications.
Sponsoring is an action-oriented relationship within a given organization or environment. A good sponsor would typically be someone with the authority to:
- Help me plan my next role;
- Promote me within the organization for that role;
- Support me as I take charge in my new role;
- Endorse my authority publicly; and
- Be my champion to the power structure.
Coaching is usually an independent and often external relationship. A good coach would typically be someone who could:
- Help me identify why I’m stuck in the pipeline;
- Help me identify and align my needs and goals;
- Help me to create a career roadmap;
- Help me to understand and articulate my value proposition; and
- Teach me how to define and reach my goals.
Depending on where people — women and men — are in their careers, one of the three concepts applies. For accomplished, high-performing women and men, "sponsoring" would be the appropriate category. But women can end up being "coached" instead of "sponsored" when their achievements are undermined.
What programs should and shouldn’t do
Harrison says she believes that everyone gets value from mentoring relationships. But she warns employers against carving out a special program for women.
“It sends the wrong message to both the women and others in the organization that women cannot succeed without extra training and help,” says Harrison.
She also warns against mentoring women to teach them how to overcome barriers that employers should have already removed. However, she acknowledges that women in male-dominated work environments might have different mentoring needs than men.
Spence says women and people of color think they’ll get ahead through meritocracy, when they really need a higher-up who knows them and can sell others with influence on their achievements.
“People tend to sponsor people who look like themselves,” Spence adds, which often shuts women and people of color out of the process. “HR needs to stay on top of this to keep it from happening.”
In her work, she has senior level people select someone to sponsor who’s at least two levels below them. The relationship is a two-way partnership in which the partners champion each other’s work, goals and aspirations.
“People tend to sponsor people who look like themselves ... HR needs to stay on top of this to keep it from happening."
President, National Association
Spence recommends that sponsorship programs:
- Get commitments from the CEO and senior executives, who can approve funding or other needed resources.
- Have a formal structure.
- Have a training component for sponsors and “sponsees” to understand their roles.
- Have goals on which the partners agree, such as a promotion or a lateral move to a different department.
Harrison thinks both formal and informal programs can be meaningful. She says people should be encouraged to seek mentoring relationships informally because they can foster engagement, well-being and commitment.
Harrison also thinks organizations should create mentorship programs that are multigenerational, multicultural and multidisciplinary. And she agrees with Spence that the mentoring or sponsoring relationship must be mutually beneficial to both partners.
Men as mentors or sponsors for women
Can men successfully mentor or sponsor women? Does any bias they might have against women rule them out?
Spence says men need to sponsor women because they’re likely to have influence within an organization that the partnership needs. She adds that male-female pairings might normally raise suspicion, but not if a formal sponsorship is in place, in which many people are sponsoring others.
“Successful mentoring relationships are not gender-specific. Men can mentor women and women can mentor men,” says Harrison. “A good mentor needs to have a sound, inclusive leadership style and a commitment to development, both for himself and others.”