How Sponsorship Can Help Senior Women Break the Marzipan Ceiling

Here is an article written by Melissa J. Anderson (New York City) for The Glass Hammer (January 19, 2011), an online community designed for women executives in financial services, law and business. “Visit us daily to discover issues that matter, share experiences, and plan networking, your career and your life. Get a new job right here!”

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What’s keeping women from reaching the highest echelon of today’s top corporations?

If you ask Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Founding President and Chairman of the Center for Worklife Policy,

it’s certainly not a dearth of women’s initiatives, mentoring programs, and networking. Nor is it related to performance.

According to a new study produced by the CWLP in conjunction with the Harvard Business Group,a lack of sponsorship for women may be to blame. At a recent event hosted by American Express, Hewlett said, “34% of the marzipan layer, that layer just below senior leadership, is made up of women.” On the other hand, she said, only about 21% of senior leadership is female. And that number hasn’t increased in years.

“It’s about relationship capital,” said Hewlett.

Authored by Hewlett, with Kerrie Peraino, Chief Diversity Officer of Amex; Laura Sherbin Ph.D., Vice President, Director of Research at CWLP; and Karen Sumberg, Vice President, Director of Projects and Communications at CWLP, “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling” outlines the ways in which women are missing out when it comes to sponsorship.

But more importantly, it is a detailed study into the sponsorship-protege relationship. It explains the urgent need for stronger sponsorship of women and how we can get it.

The Sponsor-Protege Relationship

First and foremost, anyone involved in the study is quick to point out that the sponsor-protege relationship isn’t a one way street. Hewlett explained that a sponsor is a senior individual who is willing to spend his or her political capital on a protege’s behalf and link his or her reputation to theirs.

Likewise, she explained, “This isn’t a free ride. Becoming someone’s sponsor is a big deal. A protege has to come through, has to be loyal, and has to be someone you can trust.”

And sometimes, said Sumberg, you never know that person. “They might go to bat for you at a meeting and you don’t find out until later.”

Sumberg emphasized that sponsorship isn’t something a company can guarantee, for example, by tying executive compensation to sponsorship initiatives. But the sponsorship relationship can still be valuable to executives. “Proteges are the people you have in your pocket who are very loyal to you and can make you look good. If that doesn’t get you more compensation, I don’t know what will,” she said.

Getting Your Own Sponsor

According to the research, women have three times as many mentors as men. But men have more sponsors. Additionally, men are more likely to also have informal sponsor-like relationships.

And that’s important. Mentors may guide you and advise you, Hewlett explained. But sponsors encourage you to reach higher. She said, “Sponsors get you the key stretch assignments that allow you to shine.” And this may be the crux of the issue – when women lack sponsors, they lack the push or backing to reach for the next level. Many have pointed out that women are often uncomfortable volunteering for tough assignments, or “wait to be asked.” A lack of sponsorship may be the reason why.

Peraino agreed. She said her own sponsor, a senior leader in HR at American Express, had been the one to open doors for her and push her into stretch assignments.

But finding a sponsor isn’t easy. Because of the nature of the sponsorship relationship, it’s unlikely that your company can provide one for you. But it can provide pathways to build those relationships. Peraino said that mentors can be a pathway to sponsorship. “Also direct report relationships can evolve into sponsorship, as well as your boss.” Building strong relationships with individuals above you, as well as your peers, can help make potential sponsors aware of you and provide an entryway into networks of power.

Sumberg said that it’s important to make sure you’re visible in your organization. “Make sure you’re doing projects and receiving recognition for things that have strategic importance. Position yourself to get more exposure.”

Peraino added, “Be intentional about sponsorship early in your career. It really does enhance the climb.”

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Melissa J. Anderson is a writer, editor, and social media expert for The Glass Hammer. She is interested in how engaging in networked communities can foster workplace gender equality, good corporate citizenship, and individual workplace satisfaction, all of which improve a company’s bottom line.

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