Women: to get ahead, get a sponsor

Jun 21 2012 by Brian Amble Print This Article

It isn't a lack of flexible working options or childcare that is stopping women from making it to the most senior ranks of British organisations. According to a new report, the real reason women are not breaking through into leadership positions is a lack of sponsors.

If women want to make it to the top, they need to get themselves a sponsor - someone with credibility who is willing to take a bet on a young talent, go out on a limb for her and advocate her for the next promotion. That's the message from a report from the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy), entitled "Sponsor Effect: UK"

While the lack of women on UK corporate boards continues to make headlines, the boardroom is only the tip of the organisational iceberg. Highly qualified British women are not breaking through to leadership positions in numbers commensurate with their presence in the talent pool. Moreover, without a ready supply of qualified women moving up the corporate ladder, the progress of women in the boardroom will remain slow.

In fact, women enter the white-collar workforce in the UK in far greater numbers than men: 57 females for every 43 males. Yet as employees in large corporations move from entry-level to middle management, and from mid- to senior-level positions, men advance disproportionately.

According to the new CTI study, the key reason for this and has nothing to do with a lack of accomplishment, ambition, a paucity of childcare or flextime. Rather, British women tend not to have sponsors to propel and protect them through the treacherous shoals of upper management.

The study found that UK men with sponsors (as opposed to those without) are 40 per cent more likely to move up the ladder at a satisfactory clip, while this "sponsor effect" for UK women is even more marked at 52 per cent.

It turns out that sponsorship in the UK is largely a male phenomenon. According to the report, the Old Boys Club is alive and well in the executive suite with senior British men 50 per cent more likely than senior British women to have a sponsor.

"When it comes to choosing who to tap on the shoulder and groom for leadership, C-suite executives (overwhelming white males) reach automatically for a 'mini-me'," the report suggests.

Other findings from the study include three key differences between sponsorship in the UK and the U.S:

First, sponsorship has a particularly powerful effect on the retention of women in the UK. British women with sponsors stay on track and are 58 per cent less likely than those without sponsors to be a flight risk (plan on leaving their jobs within a year).

Second, women are actually more ambitious in the UK than in the US. Upper middle management women in the UK are very ambitious. Eight out of 10 aspire to hold a top job compared to six out of 10 of upper middle management women in the US. They also have marginally higher aspirations than their male peers (79 per cent versus 74 per cent).

These high rates of ambition are related to two factors: a sharp increase in the number of British women out-earning their spouses and a rise in the number of women choosing not to have children (nearly four out of 10 UK women over 40 are not parents.)

Finally, it seems that sexual politics are less of a barrier to sponsorship in the UK. While almost two-thirds of senior men in the US are hesitant to have one-on-one contact with junior women for fear of gossip or lawsuits, fewer than four out of 10 senior men in the UK feel the same way.

According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett,co-author of the study and CEO of CTI, case studies have highlighted how initiatives that provide pathways to sponsorship and encourage high potential women are already reaping results.

But at the same time, women need to own and drive their ascent to leadership by focusing on their performance, their loyalty and delivering a distinctive personal brand, all of which will reinforce their "executive presence".