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