March 8th, 2021

As Black History Month came to a close and International Women’s Day & Women’s History Month arrive, I cannot help but think how fortunate I am to have the job I have – to work in career empowerment for women and underrepresented minorities at one of the companies leading from the front in terms of diversity and inclusion. 

This role is personally meaningful to me. I was born and raised in Honduras, a Central American country that has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusion. I know many women in my close circles who are still held back by traditional gender roles and people from underrepresented ethnicities who are held back by systemic barriers. While I’m inspired every day, I recognize there is still more work to be done to increase the representation of women and people of color in senior executive roles. 

This article will first review research that shows the current demographic representation in senior leadership; then it will discuss what sponsorship is and why it matters, and it will close with recommendations for senior executives and rising talent on actions they can take to activate sponsorship in their organizations and their own careers. 

Recent years show moderate increases in representation of women and women of color

McKinsey research shows we’ve made progress in advancing the representation of women since 2015; however, the issue of the “broken rung” (the middle levels of the organization where representation declines) still persists. 

There is a tremendous opportunity to elevate talented women of color into senior leadership roles. Another McKinsey study shows that while the chances of women overall reaching senior roles are slim, the odds for women of color are even worse.

Diversifying senior leadership roles through sponsorship

Many organizations recognize that sponsorship helps level the playing field, with many creating sponsorship programs as a result. For this article, I’d like to focus on what you as an executive and as an individual can do. 

First, it’s important to quickly review what sponsorship is, as research shows women and minorities are over-mentored and under-sponsored. As one of my favorite researchers, Herminia Ibarra, explains, sponsorship can be thought of as a spectrum of support where mentoring is on the lower end of the spectrum and sponsorship is on the high end.

Mentorship focuses on providing advice, support, and coaching and it’s typically a private relationship; sponsorship, on the other hand, is a public relationship where the senior leader advocates for the protégé’s promotion and fights for them in places where they cannot advocate for themselves.

Recommendations for senior executives

Knowing this, what can senior executives do from a sponsorship perspective in order to accelerate diversity in their organizations? 

  1. Get to know the talent deeper in the organization. How many of the high-performing women or high-performing minorities do you know in mid-level roles? Do you know their strengths and development needs? Their career aspirations?
  2. Remember the sponsorship spectrum. You don’t always have to be an advocate. You could also be a strategizer, a connector, or an opportunity giver—and you can fill each of those roles at different times. 
  3. Have you engaged with your HR partners to understand the strength and diversity of the leadership pipeline for your function?

These are small steps that can make a big difference. 

I can personally attest to the impact of sponsorship. At pivotal moments in my life (e.g., getting admitted to a U.S. university, getting admitted to a Ph.D. program, gaining support to move from my old role into the D&I team), I had sponsors who took the time to get to know my work, gave me projects that promoted my visibility, and advocated for me. 

Recommendations for women and people of color rising through the ranks 

I admit that during these times I wasn’t being fully intentional about surrounding myself with leaders who could be my advocates. I also had luck in being part of teams with amazing leaders. For that reason, I also want to offer some advice for rising talent:

  1. Examine your network. Who are your advocates? Do you have a diverse set of advocates inside and outside your function? What would happen if your strongest advocate leaves the organization?
  2. It’s okay if you don’t have sponsors yet, or if your sponsor network needs adjusting. Consider reaching out to potential sponsors and start developing relationships early. Sponsor-protégé relationships take time to bloom.
  3. When identifying potential sponsors, people tend to seek sponsors who have lived through the same experiences (e.g. women seeking other women, minorities seeking other minorities, etc.). However, the most important factor to consider is the level of influence that leader has in the organization. 
  4. Be clear on your career goals. Senior leaders will have an easier time supporting you if you have a clear goal or set of goals.

During Women’s History Month, I’d like to challenge Athena’s senior executives to pay it forward to emerging talent. And for emerging talent, I’d like to challenge you to be intentional about examining your network of sponsors to take the next step in your career.



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