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Office Sponsors Needed, But Lacking For Women In The Workplace: Study

First Posted: 08/17/2011 11:47 am EDT Updated: 10/17/2011 6:12 am EDT

We've heard it before: long hours, a strong work ethic and stellar performance no longer guarantee your rise on the corporate ladder -- if they ever did.

But a study released today compounds the evidence, especially when it comes to women's career advancement.

According to new research from Catalyst, a leading non-profit organization that specializes in expanding opportunities for women in the workplace, even though hard work and impressive results are important, high performers, especially those who are women, need highly-positioned sponsors -- allies who are willing to fight for their advancement -- in order to make it out of middle management and into the elusive "C-Suite."

The study also found that women are less likely than men to have an effective sponsor.

Through interviews with a total of 93 sponsors -- male and female leaders -- and the high achievers who are those leaders' protégés from six top global organizations, "Sponsoring Women to Success" chronicles the advantages of this special workplace relationship.

Heather Foust-Cummings, one of the study's authors and a senior director at Catalyst, told The Huffington Post that sponsorship is something that, "quite frankly, men have taken for granted and women haven't been as aware of. We wanted to bring sponsorship out from underneath the curtain."

The first step to ushering companies' sponsorship tendencies into the open is to make sure that the general population understands what it is. In a blog for Forbes Woman, Foust-Cummings wrote, "We may not be able to define it precisely, but we know it when we see it."

In essence, sponsorship is a more intensive and high stakes form of mentorship, she explained in an interview with HuffPost. "A mentor advises and supports you, but sponsors are ambitious for you. They make sure that you get the visibility that you need. They really have their skin in the game and are willing to ride their reputation with yours."

According to Foust-Cummings, sponsorship can be advantageous to three different parties. Most obviously, successful sponsorships benefit protégés, who become more visible to leaders in the company, increasing their chances for promotion. A 2011 study from the Center for Worklife Policy and published by the Harvard Business Review, found that sponsorship can result in as much as a 30 percent increase in promotions, pay raises and stretch assignments for a protege.

Sponsors also benefit: As they help a protege advance, they become recognized for fostering talent and improve their own leadership skills. And the organization itself is strengthened when upper-level employees nurture and utilize talent that might otherwise have gone overlooked or underdeveloped.

Yet in spite of these clear advantages, the Catalyst study found that many women are unaware of these benefits and lack allies among company leadership. In fact, 77 percent of women were reported to believe that hard work and long hours rather than connections are responsible for advancement. While a strong work ethic is crucial to rising in the corporate structure -- and to securing a sponsor -- it is only one part of the equation, Cummings-Foust said.

Stuck In The 'Marzipan Layer'

A 2005 Gallup poll that showed that, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans reported they believed that men and women held equal opportunities in the workforce. Despite this sentiment, six years later, gender parity in the workplace hasn’t been achieved.

A 2010 Catalyst report, titled "Pipeline's Broken Promises," showed that even though women are graduating with advanced degrees at record rates that even surpass those of men, males are more likely to start out at a higher position post-MBA and twice as likely to rise to the CEO or senior executive level. This disparity held for men and women with equivalent ambitions to reach the C-Floor and for men and women who did not have children.

And the problem exists across a wide range of fields, including, according to a 2009 White House Report:


  • Law: Even though women constitute 48 percent of law school graduates, only one in four judges is a woman.

  • Film: Not only do women make up only 16 percent of cinematographers, writers, producers and directors, but that percentage is lower than it was at the beginning of the decade.

  • Academia: Women make up 26 percent of full professors, 23 percent of university presidents and 14 percent of presidents at institutions that grant doctoral degrees. The number of female university presidents has remained stagnant for 10 years. Women make up 57 percent of all college students, however.

And women are underrepresented in politics as well. There are only six female governors in the United States, and there is a low percentage of women in Congress as well. The House of Representatives is currently made up of 360 men and 75 women. In the senate, there are 17 women and 83 men. In an article following Geraldine Ferraro's death, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) expressed her concern that, "women only hold 17 percent of the seats in Congress, six governor's mansions and just 22 percent of all statewide elected offices. For the first time in 30 years, the percentage of women in Congress went backwards, and women under 40 only represent less than one percent of Congress."

Sylvia Hewlett, president of the Center for Work Life Policy, told the Financial Times earlier this year, "women are stuck. There's a ton of accomplished women in the 'marzipan layer,'" the level just below senior management, who do not get elevated to the top of the cake. Hewlett said the solution was increased sponsorship.

A female protégé interviewed for the new sponsorship study told Catalyst that her sponsorship was a critical factor in her rise in her company.

"At a more junior level, you've got every chance of progressing ... by being very good at your job and doing a very good job at the interview." But once you move beyond that point, she said, "That pyramid has shrunk in terms of the number of jobs, and you have to have people who are advocating on your behalf to be one of the ... possible candidates for that one job."

Women And Sponsorship

Foust-Cummings said that the point of this study is not to accuse women of failing to secure sponsors. "This is not about fixing what women are doing," she said, "but rather [proclaiming] that corporations and leaders should know that [sponsorship] is something that they have to do and they are going to miss out on good talent."

According to Harvard's 2010 report, the primary reason that women and men left their first post-MBA job was the lack of career advancement.

But why are women less likely to be in an effective sponsor/protégé relationship?

An explanation could lie in Catalyst's finding that men were more likely to have sponsors in higher positions than women's sponsors. Since those with sponsors (male or female) higher up on the corporate ladder have a greater likelihood to succeed, men are at an advantage.

But Foust-Cummings said that there is a more fundamental issue at play.

"I think that the crux of the problem is that people like people who look like themselves, so sponsors often sponsor people who look like them. In doing that [sponsors] are missing out on a great opportunity," she said, possibly overlooking other talented prospective proteges.

This affects not only women, according to Foust-Cummings, but also members of racial and ethnic minorities that may not be heavily represented in the upper echelons of their companies.

Steps Forward

Not all companies have ignored the value of sponsorship. The Catalyst study also highlights businesses that have instituted formal programs charged with training a diverse group of high performing employees in the benefits of sponsorship.

According to the study, model programs can be found at McDonald's, Deutsche Bank's Accomplished Top Leader Advancement Strategy (ATLAS), CH2M HILL's Sponsoring Women In Critical Roles program and Citi's Women Leading Citi formal program.

The Harvard study also applauded several active sponsorship programs, including American Express: Women in the Pipeline & at the Top, 
Cisco: Inclusive Advocacy Program, Deloitte: Leading to WIN, and Time Warner: Breakthrough Leadership.

Ultimately, more companies need to be made aware of how beneficial sponsorship can be to the entire organization, and that not emphasizing it disadvantages certain potential stars, namely women and minorities, said Foust-Cummings.

She concluded, "If you have a CEO or president of a business say, 'I want to know who you are sponsoring, and if they all look like you, we have a problem,' that would get results."

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