Despite decades of spotlight on the issue, the representation of women in corporate leadership remains persistently low and is not improving at a pace that would bring about sufficient change. The underrepresentation is evident at every level of management, but the problem worsens on the journey to the top. A Harvard Business Review from 2010 highlighted the lack of significant progress in gender equality despite a decade of intense focus. Sadly, the same sentiment could be echoed today nearly fifteen years later. While mentorship is often raised as one of many solutions to enhance female representation, it falls short. To genuinely elevate women in the workforce, we need to promote sponsorship. While a mentor provides advice, a sponsor goes further by actively advocating for their protégé. There needs to be a profound shift in approach to instigate meaningful changes in outcomes.
The underrepresentation of women in corporate leadership is often described by the metaphorical “glass ceiling,” or invisible barrier that prevents women and other minorities from reaching the top. Carson’s CHV Equity Women CEO Strategy endeavors to highlight and normalize women in these pinnacle roles. The glass ceiling is real. Only 40% of managers in the US are women and the number drops to 27% at the Senior Vice President level.1 At the highest echelons, the statistics fall precipitously with women comprising less than 10% of CEOs at publicly traded companies.2 However, disparities exist from the start of women’s careers where only 87 women are promoted for every 100 men from entry level to management roles.3 This disadvantaged starting point is termed the “broken-rung,” and becomes more pronounced as female careers advance.
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Mentorship is frequently highlighted as a key factor in the success of women in the workplace. While mentorship undeniably plays a significant role, its efficiency has been limited despite decades of corporate investment in mentorship programs. In fact, women are often over-mentored with time-consuming initiatives that have little impact on systemic barriers. Shifting the mindset from mentorship to sponsorship could help transform the dynamic, emphasizing advocacy for and promotion of women in the workplace. Although the terms may seem similar, sponsorship goes beyond mentorship in that these more senior colleagues actively work to promote and advance the careers of those they sponsor.
Sponsorship is more than sharing knowledge or experience, it demands advocacy. Essential at every stage of career development, from addressing the broken-rung issue in the early stages to tackling pronounced inequality at the top, sponsorship is imperative. Try as they might, women in mid-level management may not be noticed or considered for senior-level roles, often lacking opportunities to engage with senior leaders during decision-making processes. A sponsor serves as a proactive advocate for the sponsee, working to raise awareness and speaking up for the person when they are not in the room.
Forward-thinking workplaces need to champion sponsorship. Many existing programs aim to educate, guide, or mentor aspiring women, but these solutions fall short of achieving true workforce equality. Gender equality necessitates equal representation of women in senior management positions. Given the current disparity, a frank conversation about promoting more women with leadership potential is a must. Sponsorship is one of several tools needed to achieve this goal.
2 Carson Group Calculations based on 41 Female CEO’s in the S&P 500 as of January 2024.