Blog Post

Why Women Need Effective Sponsorship to Advance Their Careers

By Rumbi Petrozzello
March 22, 2023

Women in the workplace may be looking at their career trajectories and, despite hard work and high performance, feeling as though they are not advancing as they would like or, indeed, as they should. They may not be imagining things. The 2022 Women in the Workplace report, published by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, found that White women made up 29% and women of color 19% of entry-level positions. However, looking at the C-Suite, White women occupied 21% of those positions and women of color only 5%. How does the representation of women shrink from 48% to 21% as one progresses up the career ladder? One answer is sponsorship or, rather, a lack of it.  

Understanding Sponsorship

Many people speak about mentorship and sponsorship interchangeably, as though one is a synonym for the other. This is a mistake that impacts many a career. A mentor is an advisor—they are the person you speak with and the person who gives career advice and guidance. A mentor is who you go to when you seek to expand your knowledge, build your skills, and in many ways, become sponsor-ready. A sponsor is an advocate—they are the person who can and will use their influence and leadership status to advocate for your advancement. A sponsor will spend their relationship capital on you, support you as they connect you to career opportunities, and put their reputation behind you.

The Power of a Sponsor

The music executive, entrepreneur, and film producer Clarence Avant, affectionately known as the Black Godfather, was a highly influential sponsor who used his networks to transform the trajectories of many, famously saying: “I don’t have problems. I have friends.” He leveraged his network to move the then-unknown junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, into a primetime sport at the Democratic National Convention, an event that was integral to Obama’s political success. Just before Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s record, Avant marched into the office of the president of Coca-Cola and negotiated a life-changing endorsement deal for Aaron. That is the power of a sponsor who not only recognizes talent but also has the clout to move that talent forward.

Who Is Being Sponsored?

It takes more than hard work to succeed; it takes an advocate raising your visibility, connecting you with career-expanding opportunities, and expanding your networks. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation found that 71% of sponsors are the same race or gender as their protégés. What is the impact of that? The 2022 Women in the Workplace report found that although 33% of entry-level positions are occupied by White men, by the time they get to the C-suite, that number has almost doubled to 61%. Seramount research reported that 78% of corporate leaders tap their inner professional networks to fill vacant roles, networks that do not include a single person of color for 91% of White executives. For women, particularly women of color, to advance into senior leadership, they need to be sponsored, and they need White male sponsors. This necessity is underscored by research by PayScale which found that employees who have a White male sponsor end up with higher pay. Black women with a Black sponsor made 11.3% less than Black women with a White sponsor, and Hispanic women with a Hispanic sponsor made 15.5% less than Hispanic women with a White sponsor.

Inclusive Sponsorship of Top Talent

Human beings tend to be more comfortable with others who are like them, and it is easy to find those comfortable relationships when what they have in common is easily identified, such as gender, race, or upbringing. This is why sponsorship across lines of difference requires intentionality and, often, the support of a formalized, effective, and equitable sponsorship program that is based on institutional recognition of high performance, talent, and potential. These sponsorship programs can be designed and implemented in many ways, but for program success, it is critical that:

  • The sponsorship match ties to the development plan of the employee;
  • The sponsor has the influence needed to make that specific next move happen for the protégé;
  • Visibility and job experience are directly tied to the sponsorship plan; and
  • There is clarity about the purpose of the sponsorship program.

Sponsorship is not a one-way street. Sponsors also benefit from the sponsorship relationship by, among other things, burnishing their reputation, increasing the likelihood that they will be promoted, and expanding their knowledge of the organization and client opportunities. An effective sponsorship program is a win-win for both the sponsor and protégé. Ensuring that high-performing women are effectively sponsored will go a long way to repairing the “broken rung” that narrows the advancement pipeline for women. Advancing top talent into positions where that talent can better leverage their skills, as well as the improved retention that comes about from sponsorship programs, is also a great boon for the organizations.

Learn More About Sponsorship at the Multicultural Women’s National Conference

Multicultural women are vital to organizational success and reinvigorate their workplaces with diverse perspectives, yet they face persistent barriers to advancement, with the majority reporting that they don’t have the formal mentorship or sponsorship needed to move forward at their companies. Join Seramount in Chicago or virtually for our Multicultural Women’s National Conference on June 21 and 22.

This hybrid conference is one of the only conferences in the nation that focuses on women of color’s talent and their supporters. Attendees will have a chance to connect with women across different industries and professions to build community and learn tangible tools for navigating the workplace and advancing their careers. Come see Elaine Welteroth and Reshma Saujani, our empowering keynote speakers, share best practices and hear which organizations have been recognized as the Best Companies for Multicultural Women. You can register now to attend in person or virtually.

To learn more about sponsorship, contact Rumbi Petrozzello at [email protected], or to learn more about Multicultural Women’s National Conference, visit the website or contact [email protected].  

About the Author

Rumbi Petrozzello
Head of Strategy, Consulting