Ideally, employees would be evaluated and given opportunities for advancement based on their past performance.
This isn’t exactly how things work.
Instead, it can matter a lot who you know and who’s vouching for you, especially within your current organization.
That idea is illustrated by a 2018 report on women in the workplace from Lean In and McKinsey & Company. The report highlights data on women in the financial-services industry.
One of the more curious findings: 54% of early-career women believe “strong communication skills” will propel them to success, while 56% of late-career women believe “sponsorship by a senior leader” will push them forward.
Senior women in financial services are also more likely to see “political savvy” (as in ability to navigate office politics) as important to success than their peers who are men, the report found.
That data echoes earlier findings on the importance of sponsorship. A Catalyst report found that women can be penalized for self-promotion in a way that men aren’t. Sponsorship is a way to outsource this self-promotion to someone else.
Sponsorship may be more meaningful as women advance in their careers because senior positions tend to be dominated by men
A sponsor is different from a mentor. While a mentor gives you career advice, a sponsor is senior in your organization or industry and can get you your next job, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Talent Innovation and the author of “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor.” (She also coauthored the Catalyst report.)
Marie-Claude Nadeau, a McKinsey partner and an author on the McKinsey and Lean In report, told Business Insider that senior women may be perceiving things accurately: Sponsorship may indeed be more meaningful as women advance in their careers, at least in financial services. While entry-level positions tend to be roughly split between men and women, more senior positions tend to be dominated by men.
That also means it’s important for women to find sponsors who are men as well. According to the report, that’s not what women are doing. Eighty-one percent of entry-level women in financial services cultivate networks that are either mostly women or split between men and women. (Nearly all men cultivate networks that are either mostly men or split between men and women.)
“It’s not to say that you shouldn’t develop relationships with women as well,” Nadeau said. “But focusing exclusively on women leaders within your organization is probably going to limit your potential. If you look at senior leaders across genders, then you might be more likely to find the right fit.”
Nadeau said women of color tend to face even more obstacles to sponsorship, and more generally, to earning their manager’s support. Beverly Anderson, head of cards and retail services at Wells Fargo, is quoted in the report saying, “I can track the times when my career accelerated due to male sponsorship — mostly white male sponsorship — early in my career.”
Companies are increasingly instituting sponsorship programs with an eye toward supporting women, but recent research suggests that these efforts may sometimes backfire. According to a laboratory study, sponsorship increased the confidence of low-ability men but didn’t make a difference on women’s willingness to put their hat in the ring.
Nadeau clarified that sponsorship doesn’t mean “going out drinking with your friends,” which sounds more like casual networking. “It’s something that can be defined, that can be taught, that can be learned,” she said. “You can actually structure a program around this that will help address the [gender] gap.”
She added, “It’s hard to say whether sponsorship matters more than other factors, but we know that it matters a lot.”