Male Sponsors can Encourage Women to Soar Through Glass Ceiling

It really does not make sense to implement diversity and inclusion initiatives to advance inclusion of women without talking to the people in power who can bring change. Those people are men.
— By Dave Desouza

Men are embedded in power positions across organizations because of historical lack of inclusion of women. The proverbial glass ceiling has kept women employed in lower paid jobs and prevented them from working their way up into higher management-level positions.

Efforts to change the picture have included establishing recruitment and hiring goals and women-focused employee resource groups (ERGs), plus diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives intended to ensure women are given opportunities. Yet, progress is slow, and one reason is that the men – the people in power – are not addressing the real need of actively preparing and promoting high performing women for higher level positions.

Creating programs that mostly spend time addressing "women's issues" that women need to solve as they fit within a male-dominated culture does not bring change. It takes more than talk and buzzwords like "I am a feminist" to achieve gender equality. It takes sponsorship, advocacy and active engagement.

People in Power Create Women in Power
Sponsorship is different than mentorship, though both are important.

Sponsors are people in power who can influence decision-making and structures, and vigorously advocate for an individual's career advancement. Since the majority of positions of power are held by men, it takes the willingness of men to become sponsors of women.

A mentor can be a sponsor, but sponsors do much more than mentors because they accelerate careers by helping women make strategic contributions, work through high-level situations, and develop the skills that support advancement and not just doing a better job in a current position.

How are companies getting men to recognize that being fair and inclusive is not a cause that creates "woke" males who pat themselves on the back for being aware and willing to put themselves out front to support women, like by joining an ERG? Being aware and willing to participate on ERGs is not the same as advocating and fighting for women. Advocacy requires being proactive and embracing the belief that the role played is sincere and important in creating a fairer system.

Becoming an Active Ally
One of the unintended consequences of the #MeToo movement is that some men avoid professional relationships with women out of fear of accusations of sexual harassment. Research by the Center for Talent Innovation found that that 71 percent of executives have protégés who have the same race and gender. All of this reflects the difficulty in changing perspectives and minds of people.

Men must act as real allies, which is what sponsorship is really all about.

Consultant Chuck Shelton says that "Allies listen, co-create opportunity, and build a personal brand for accountability and trust. For us men, we aren’t allies to women because we aspire to be, or because we say we are. We’re allies only when specific women are willing to say to us and others, ‘Here’s an example of how you are collaborating with me, supporting me, making and keeping promises, and receiving from me in a two-way relationship…’"

The crux of sponsorship is to develop specific women for leadership through authentic male support. What happens today is more along the lines of tokenism in that some women are promoted into leadership positions so the organization can point to the statistics to prove progress.

The reality is that many of the male leaders putting women in positions of power are only doing so because of appearances. They are not allies changing the organizational culture and cultivating women who are high performers.

Recognition Earned and Displayed
There is growing awareness that women need development that reflects the real world, and the real world consists of ongoing interactions with men. Sponsoring should not consist mostly of putting women in development workshops and training designed for women only. Inclusion programs have been mostly designed around ending bias and resolving barriers to inclusion, leading to the creation of new policies, affinity groups for women, specialized learning opportunities, and establishing accountability.

Men must act as real allies, which is what sponsorship is really all about.
White males are not included in women-focused groups, so when they are chosen as sponsors, the only thing they know to do is encourage women to join the groups, attend specialized development programs, and so on. There is no honest and open dialogue and no true allyship in which the male sponsor shares with others what is learned through dialogue with the sponsored woman.

There are a number of ways for men to be better sponsors for women than simply choosing a woman with potential and sending her to women-focused leadership workshops. Instead of just joining affinity groups for women and diverse employees to get a broader perspective, give the woman a high-visibility opportunity that enables the utilization of personal experiences, perspective, and talent to solve a business problem or complete a project. Actively promote her efforts, skills, and abilities to people of power in the organization and industry. Insist on giving and getting her the recognition she deserves.

Catalyst interviewed 93 executives at six global organizations, identifying best practices.

An example of a leading company is Deutsche Bank, which pairs high-performing women from all business units with a member of the Deutsche Bank's Group Executive Committee (GEC) to prepare them for the most senior positions.

Another is GEC, whose members actively advocate for and champion women who are in the sponsorship program called Accomplished Top Leaders Advancement Strategy. Women go through an in-depth assessment, attend regular meetings as a group to focus on relevant strategic topics, and attend an annual group session to expand networks and challenge men and managers in lower positions to give more thought to women careers.

Additionally, Citi developed the 18-month Women Leading Citi program to support high-performing women who have the potential to move into senior leadership. The goals include exposing women to senior managers, broadening women's visibility, providing career development and leadership skills, and supporting firm-wide efforts around talent and mobility.

Power to Lead
Each of the D&I training sessions need to be reconsidered, too. After the #MeToo movement, Dell Technologies revised its D&I training to address what it means to be in a position of power.

Take an assessment of who is currently being sponsored or mentored. If it is mostly men, it is time to add qualified women.

The Society for Human Resources Management recommends increasing transparency of sponsorship or mentoring programs, helping male leaders develop a comfortable authentic relationship with female colleagues that includes having conversations that acknowledge differences, and developing circles of male and female peers to strengthen the exchange of information.

Advancing women depends on an organizational culture that recognizes the power of women to lead.