03/15/2013 05:29 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Are Women "Leaning Back" or "Being Stung"? Why Aren't More Women Progressing in Business?

I was recently struck by a new study released by Catalyst, titled "Good Intentions, Imperfect Execution? Women Get Fewer of the 'Hot Jobs' Needed to Advance." The "hot jobs" referenced here are simply defined as the "mission critical roles and highly visible projects" that exist in any given corporation, and importantly, they often predict career advancement.

Most companies have embraced the importance of managing the talent pipeline, and as such, have instituted succession planning, mentorship programs and various leadership development courses. Even though these programs have been in place for quite some time across corporate America, the progression of women to senior executive roles has not significantly improved over the past decade. In the U.S., women enter the workforce at similar rates as men, but the percentage of women who advance to management drops drastically. So why aren't women getting these roles at the same rate as men?

I believe the answer lies, in part, in the distinction between mentorship and sponsorship. Simply put, mentors help you personally, acting as a coach and helping with decisions or challenges faced in the workplace. Sponsors might also be mentors, but the difference is they are willing to advocate on your behalf. They not only have political capital, but they invest it on behalf of another. In large corporations, these sponsors are leaders who are present at the table when high-profile assignments are being discussed and names debated. The next best thing to having a seat at the table is having a sponsor to advocate on your behalf. Men have had sponsors and advocates in the corporate world since its inception -- often referred to as the "old boys' club." Women, however, have not enjoyed this dynamic to the same extent.

That is why I was dismayed to see the recent Wall Street Journal article that noted the trend of women in power positions intentionally holding back their female peers. Even if there are credible stories and research supporting this, I believe firmly that this is not the "norm." Organizations like the Committee of 200 (C200), of which I am a board member, are dedicated to just the opposite. C200 is comprised of the world's most successful female entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Our mission, Success Shared, is about empowering women to achieve success in the highest echelons of business, in no small part through supporting one another and implementing sponsorship programs. In particular, women who are sponsored by other, existing female board members are much more likely to secure that first board room seat. Sponsorship for women on boards is perhaps the most powerful tool we have right now.

Whatever your career goal, the advice I give is to seek out esteemed colleagues, develop relationships and engage them to advocate on your behalf. I find women do not directly ask for the type of help men feel more comfortable asking for, but I'm here to say: Ask! Speak up in your network and enlist the help of respected senior employees. I know I am most proud of the women I have personally sponsored that are now in senior positions. The road to placing more women in "hot jobs" might be long, but through a supportive community and network of sponsors, we can, and will, get there.