Thursday, October 11, 2012
I was on a panel at GHC 2012 last week "Sponsors or Mentors - which will get you there?" Standing room only in a large room, it was clearly a topic of great interest to the female tech students and geeks at the conference. And the questions were priceless...
The panel, lead by Anne Losby of Thomson Reuters, was prompted by a report Catalyst put out last year on Sponsoring Women to Success. In it the research clearly shows sponsorship is a powerful differentiator at the top and key to overcoming the barriers for women. And while we are making good progress as a gender, and women make up more than 50% of the workforce, they still only make up 3.8% of the CEOs of the Fortune 500. So plenty of room to improve the ratio.
First - do you know the difference? Mentoring has been talked about for years but talking about sponsorship is a fairly new fashion. Mentoring is about advice and coaching, helping the younger employee figure out the system and skills. My advice to people seeking mentors is seek someone willing to tell you the truth about yourself. Seek someone who will hold the mirror up to you (and your behavior), even is the image is ugly. And a great mentor will put the time in to teach you.
A sponsor, however, is not a mentor. A sponsor has power and the ability to help you get ahead. They know you -- strengths and weaknesses, talents and warts -- and are ambitious for you. They help you prepare for opportunity by steering you into the right experiences and the right training. They will advocate for you and make the case when you are not in the room for why you should get the next promotion, the next cool project. They win when you win be because the company, and possibly their reputational capital in the company, are stronger when you do.
I experienced this myself in my first 12 years in Silicon Valley. I worked for 2 companies - one for 4 years, one for 8, but was never in the same job more than 21 months. I had two sponsors (although I could not have labeled them as such at the time) who were watching me, grooming me and putting me into opportunities to learn and stretch. Both were men, because back then there were no women in the organization above me. I would not have become a tech CEO at 36 without their sponsorship.
So why is this so important for women?
The tough reality is that women face a double bind. Catalyst research has shown that women who advocate for themselves can be penalized in the workplace. Women get labeled as "aggressive" when the same behavior in a man would be labeled as "assertive". I'm not complaining, it's just reality and so sponsors can help women get ahead by advocating for them and helping them avoid the double bind.
Sponsors are also important for women because men tend to know what they want and ask for it, women tend to wait to be asked. There is unconscious sterotyping going on with the men judging the women who do ask, but there is also stereotyping going on by the women who restrict their own behavior. Afraid to appear "pushy" or "too aggressive" they moderate their own behavior to meet the expectation of humility from women.
And this is where the questions lead on the panel. All the discussion, in the end, led to the double bind. How to get ahead and ask for the project, the job, the doctoral research without offending the men around you and being judged? Lots of advice ensued, but in the end I told the group to "Just go for it and course correct when you are in the job. Don’t tap down your natural energy and your drive, we need that in our companies!" Strong women (and men) - apply here.