Some say men may receive more promotions because of the way they find mentors. Women are often assigned mentors through formal programs, while men tend to informally connect with senior colleagues who act like sponsors rather than advisers, says Katherine Giscombe, vice president of diverse women and inclusion research at Catalyst. Sponsors go a step beyond mentoring by advocating for employees to be placed in jobs or get high-visibility assignments, Giscombe says. Because they take a more active role, sponsors can have a significant influence on whether an executive reaches a high-level post, she says. Ideally, mentorships would lead to sponsorships, but for women they rarely do.
Men’s ability to connect with senior executive sponsors is more a matter of comfort than an indicator of outright discrimination, says Alison Quirk, head of human resources at State Street Corp., which has a record of promoting women to executive roles. “I actually think it’s very simple,” Quirk says. “There are more men in this network of relationships, and because of the similarities among men, they find natural connections with one another and they get to know one another better than perhaps a man and a woman might,” she says.
Men’s mentorships often turn into sponsorships because they are more personal than formal programs, Quirk says. “Because those relationships are deeper, and the people involved know one another better, the odds are that those [informal] sponsorships/mentorships will be very productive,” she says. Conversely, the mentors assigned to women through formal programs may not get to know their mentees well enough to advocate for them, Giscombe says.
Because sponsorships are more effective than mentorships at helping women get promoted, Giscombe suggests that senior executives can help achieve parity in top finance roles by taking mentoring to this next level. “Women have been mentored and mentored and developed and developed, but it’s the sponsorship that makes a difference to careers,” she says.
Sometimes, sponsorship can simply entail a nudge or a similar kind of informal advocacy, says Valarie Sheppard, comptroller at Procter & Gamble. Sheppard says she once encouraged hiring managers to talk to a woman who was a potential candidate for a promotion, rather than assume she would be uninterested. When the employee’s name originally came up, she recalls, “They said, ‘It’s not going to work, because her husband works for the company, they’re both in Cincinnati, and she’s on maternity leave [and won't want to relocate].’ And I said, ‘I get that, but have you asked her? Did anybody ask her?’” No one had. When the hiring managers called the candidate, she wanted the job. “Just that one question, that’s all I had to say,” Sheppard says.
Other companies hope to facilitate sponsorship through programs that enlist senior executives as mentors for women. At State Street, 12 female executives launched the Leading Women program, which is open to women whose managers recommend them. Each woman in the program is paired with a female executive who will mentor her over a year and study her strengths. This long-term mentoring period allows executives to get to know their mentees well enough to advocate for them, Quirk says. By networking through their mentors, these women also have the opportunity to meet other executives who could mentor or sponsor them in the future.