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White Women: The Sponsors Women of Color Must Have in the 21st Century

Posted: 01/18/12 12:14 PM ET

By Trudy Bourgeois and Dr. Ancella Livers

Imagine a time with equal representation of ALL women on boards, at the CEO position and in the c-suite. There'd be no more talk of "breaking the glass ceiling." There would be no glass ceiling. Nor would there be talk of "being the first." The presence of strong female leaders would be the norm.

Think that can't happen? Think again. If women can find the ability to solidify a collective voice, then anything can happen -- anything. And that includes electing the first female President of the United States. The power and impact of women in the 21st century is undeniable. In an October 13, 2010, Huffington Post article entitled, This Century Goes to the Women, Muktar Kent, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, stated, "Women will play the pivotal role in transforming the global economy and society over the next decade."

What is the problem?

In 1965, affirmative action was established. It was amended in 1967 to ensure that women and minorities were provided opportunities to be considered for job placement. In theory, it served as the catalyst for creating opportunities. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready to meet the new employee requirements. As a result, even in the 21st century women are still struggling to find their place and voice in corporate America.

According to The Atlantic, in 2010, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. For every two men that got a college diploma last year, three women did the same. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women now hold 51.4% of managerial and professional jobs -- up from 26.1% in 1980. They make up 54% of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America's physicians are now women, as are 45% of associates in law firms -- and both those percentages are rising quickly.

The pink elephant in the living room that isn't being talked about is this: White women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. So much so that their presence at mid- to senior-levels dramatically outpace women of color by 4 to 1. In Fortune 500 companies, 2010 numbers show that white women held 12.7% of board seats as compared to women of color holding 3% of the board seats.

What do these numbers tell us? It is clear. Women of color are lagging behind in advancement opportunities. In her book, Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape, Dr. Ella Bell communicates that women of color face a glass ceiling, but they hit a concrete wall before they even get to the glass ceiling.

Truth be told, women of color secretly wonder if white women have forgotten about them. From the perspective of females of color, they (white women) have "made it." Our research indicates that white women don't see themselves as "having made it," nor do they see themselves as "sponsors" for women of color. Yet the truth is this: Women of color need the full advocacy and sponsorship of white women to even get into the playing field.

Why Should Anyone Care?

She-conomy.com reports that women in America make over 80% of the buying decisions and spend approximately $5 trillion annually -- over half the U.S. GDP. Research proves that organizations that have been intentional about building a workforce from top to bottom that reflects the face of the consumer (the majority of which are women) are more profitable.

A recent Pepperdine study tracked the performance of Fortune 500 companies with a strong record of promoting women to the executive suite and compared their performance to that of other firms in the same industries. The results were astounding. For every year between 2001-2007, the companies identified as being the best at promoting women outperformed the industry median on all three profitability measures (i.e. overall profits 34% higher when calculated for revenue, 18% higher in terms of assets and 69% higher in regard to equity). Furthermore, the 10 firms with the very best records of promoting women showed greater profit results than the firms that were merely very good.

So what is the key to advancing women? Sponsorship. Sponsorship is an absolute requirement when building that diverse workforce and getting ALL women into leadership positions. According to the Harvard Business Review article, "Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women," "Good sponsorship requires a set of skills and sensibilities that most company's star executives do not necessarily possess."

Not only is sponsorship a requirement from men in leadership positions, but it is also a requirement from women leaders. Specifically, white women need the opportunity to build the capacity to serve as effective sponsors because it helps them learn this final lesson about being leaders and wielding power: True leaders own their power and use it to increase the success of those around them.

The Way Forward

Both white women and women of color have something to learn: They need each other.

Women of color need to lay down their pride and develop the willingness to "ask for help" without feeling like failures. White women need to step into their own power and recognize that they are in positions to sponsor and lead the change that will level the playing field for all women. And when women of color ask for help, white women must be careful not to make them feel like "charity cases." Rather, white women must do what sponsors do. Sponsors serve as marketing ambassadors and advocates to help those individuals they believe have the capacity to take on higher positions within the organization. Actually, they don't just help them -- they make sure their sponsee's GET those positions.

Part of that also includes sponsors extending their sponsee's network by facilitating introductions so that other senior executives can become more comfortable with the sponsored individuals. But there is a twist. White women must take a stance of truly understanding that the challenges women of color face are not "just like " the challenges faced by white women. White women need to listen and appreciate the complexity that race brings to the mix.

In short, women simply must learn how to support other women across ALL ethnicities. This is THE way we WILL raise a collective voice of demand for eliminating the glass ceiling once and for all.

Women have been gaining momentum since the turn of the century. Many courageous female leaders, including Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Nancy Brinker, Melinda Gates and so many others have rallied across differences to find a way to collect their voices to lead major transformations for female empowerment. History records their efforts in profound ways.
What will history say about female leadership in the 21st century?


About Trudy Bourgeois:
Trudy Bourgeois is a workforce performance strategist specializing in developing 21st century leaders who will elicit the greatest contribution from ALL employees. Through her company, The Center for Workforce Excellence, Trudy teaches her clients and audiences unique insights on building authentic relationships to support collaboration, innovation and best practices...all resulting in breakthrough business results and increased bottom lines.
Trudy is the author of Her Corner Office: A Guide to Help Women Find a Place and Voice in Corporate America (2nd Edition) and The Hybrid Leader: Blending the Best of the Male and Female Leadership Styles. She is a former senior sales/marketing executive with 27 years of cross-functional business experience. Bourgeois broke the glass ceiling in the tobacco industry to become one of the first African American female VPs in the consumer goods industry. Trudy is passionate about helping others achieve higher levels of performance--especially with the exciting changes and opportunities in today's workforce and business environment.

About Dr. Ancella Livers:
Dr. Livers is the Senior Faculty member on the Design and Delivery team at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), working with clients on gaining clarity around their leadership needs and creating dynamic solutions to meet those needs. Ancella earned a B.S. in Mass Communications from Hampton Institute, a M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern, and a M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Carnegie Mellon University.

Livers is a skilled leadership development professional. While most of her clients have been in Fortune 500 companies, she has also worked with government agencies and nonprofits. For a time, Ancella joined the Executive Leadership Council® (ELC) where she served as Executive Director of the Institute for Leadership Development and Research. Prior to working in the leadership development field, Dr. Livers was an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at West Virginia University, and spent a decade as a newspaper journalist, acting as business editor and Capitol Hill reporter for Gannett News Service. She is co-author of the book Leading in Black and White: Working across the Racial Divide and of the Harvard Business Review article "Dear White Boss." She has also been published in various other magazines and publications.