August 21, 2017

August 21, 2017

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Mind the Gap: Reducing the Sponsorship Gap Between Men and Women in the Workplace

While recently moderating a panel on mentors and sponsors in the workplace, I was struck when one of the panelists, a seasoned, extremely accomplished General Counsel at a prestigious institution, mused aloud that she had had many sponsors in retrospect, but did not know there was a name for it. 

This is not surprising.  Everyone knows what a mentor is.  But not everyone knows how a mentor differs from a sponsor.  And recent Catalyst research indicates it is this critical difference that helps explain the gaps in career advancement and compensation that women face right out of the gate, as well as over time, in comparison to their male peers.  

Statistics regarding women’s advancement in the legal profession are well-known.  The National Association of Women Lawyers (“NAWL”) annual survey of women in AmLaw 200 law firms shows that women’s representation in the equity partner ranks has plateaued at the 15-16% range in the five years since NAWL began the survey.  The MCCA survey of women general counsels in the Fortune 500 fares a bit better, with women clocking in just under 19%.  These numbers are not dissimilar to women in US business generally. The annual Catalyst census of women’s representation of Fortune 500 Board directors and executive officers has also stalled out in the 14-15% range. 

How do we move off this plateau and get closer to gender parity in our top leadership positions?

 For years, many have looked to mentoring as a solution.   Yet, for all the time and resources invested in mentoring, it has not yielded dramatic results. Indeed, Catalyst research has revealed a paradox. According to Catalyst’s landmark study of high-potential MBA graduates, Mentoring: Necessary but Insufficient for Advancement, more women than men reported having mentors, but mentoring provided a much bigger pay-off for men than women.  For example, mentoring was a statistically significant predictor of promotion for men but not for women.   We also found that men with mentors made more than women with mentors in their first post-MBA job – to the tune of $9260. 

Why is it that men reap much bigger rewards from mentoring than women in terms of promotion and compensation?  

Mentoring: Necessary but Insufficient for Advancement found that although more women than men have mentors, women’s mentors have less clout.  In other words, men are more likely to be mentored by CEOs or other senior executives who are in a position to act on behalf of their protégés.  These powerful mentors act as sponsors.  A sponsor is someone with power and rank and significant influence on decision-making processes.  A sponsor can ensure that a high-performing woman’s work is noticed, that she is put on key projects or client engagements, and advocate for her promotion.

Take the example of a woman partner who is now a leader in her firm and in the profession.  When she first came up for partner at her firm, she and her supporters assumed she would make partner. When she did not, her supporters rallied around her, engaged the support of other partners, including, critically, a member of the partner election committee, and she made partner the following year. 

In the example above, note that the most important work of the lawyer’s sponsors was done behind closed doors.  As a sponsor stated in our latest report:

A lot of decisions…are made when you’re not in the room, so you need somebody who can…advocate for you and can bring up the important things of why you should advance. You need somebody or people at that table…speaking for you….I can’t think of a person who rose without a sponsor or significant sponsors.

Catalyst research regarding differences between women and men’s mentors in the high-potential MBA population corresponds to the findings in Catalyst’s Women of Color in US Law Firms research report.  Of all the groups of lawyers Catalyst surveyed, women of color were the most likely to say they had a mentor, and white men were the least likely to say they had a mentor.  The difference emerges in terms of access to influential mentors.  Women of color were least likely to feel their mentors were influential. 

Sponsorship does not replace mentoring, by any means.  Mentoring is still necessary, but it is not sufficient on its own.   Good advice without the opportunity to put that advice into action will take one only so far.  As Catalyst research demonstrates, women get a lot of advice, but are not getting ahead. 

To learn more about the latest research on sponsorship, and hear from women leaders in the business and legal world, join me at the Seventh Annual National Association of Women Lawyers General Counsel Institute on November 3, 2011 for a panel discussion, Beyond Mentoring: Career Advancement Strategies.  For more information on NAWL’s General Counsel Institute and to register, visit NAWL’s website.

© 2017 Catalyst Inc.


About this Author

Brande Stellings, J.D., leads Catalyst’s efforts to advance women and promote inclusion within the legal profession. She serves on the Board of Directors of Legal Momentum (The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund) and formerly chaired (2007-2010) Women in the Profession, a committee of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

Prior to joining Catalyst, Ms. Stellings served as Vice President, Litigation, at NBC Universal and...

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