Women In Business School: Company Sponsorship Provides Route To C-Suite

Business schools throw backing behind women's leadership initiatives

For women hoping to climb to the C-suite, sponsorship may provide an accelerated accent.

Discussion has erupted in recent years around sponsorship and how it is essential for developing senior female business leaders.

While mentors have been advancing women in business for years, sponsors go beyond their traditional social, emotional, and personal growth development. Women are over mentored and under sponsored, according to a recent study by Kings College London.

The Harvard Business Review defines sponsorship as active support by someone in an organization who has significant influence on decision-making, and who is advocating and fighting for the career advancement of an individual.

By openly recommending high-performing employees for assignments, opportunities, or promotions, sponsors can leverage their own power and reputational capital. Examples include the 18-month-long Women Leading Citi initiative at the US-based bank, and the Sponsorship Initiative pioneered by Silicon Valley technology group Cisco.

A highly placed, influential sponsor can propel a protégé to the top of a list or pile of candidates, concluded a study from Catalyst, which seeks to expand opportunities for women in business.

Business schools too have thrown their backing behind the concept.

“Sponsors are key in supporting talented individuals become visible to the right people in the organization,” says Professor Dianne Bevelander, executive director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organizations at Rotterdam School of Management.

It is not merely about working harder and taking on additional projects; you also need to be seen and heard, she argues. “Sponsors can be crucial in helping you become visible to the right set of people.”

For years, when organizations and leaders examined why women weren’t making it to the top, a lack of mentoring and role models was continually cited. But there still few women rising to the top of organizations: there are just seven women chief executive officers or chairpersons of FTSE 100 companies; women account for only 4% of S&P 1500 CEOs, according to Execucomp.

“Although women serve on the board of directors of many listed companies in leading economies, their number remains low,” says Professor Dianne. “Additionally, equal pay for equal work remains elusive.”

However, businesses have shown a willingness to embrace sponsorship. EY, which has 46% female senior managers, is a leader on this front. Its sponsorship program sees senior partners advocate for women in their groups and help them get promoted to the top jobs.

Elsewhere, Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceuticals group, runs the Women’s Leadership Initiative, which works to advance women inside the corporation and has grown to have 50 chapters. And General Electric, the US industrial champion, has the Women's Network, which has more than 100,000 members and aims to cultivate their leadership skills and career opportunities.

Elissa Sangster, executive director of Forté Foundation, which helps women launch business careers, says that sponsorship within an organization will encourage female employees to position themselves accordingly.

“That kind of activity is positive, and that’s going to help the organizations’ leaders identify future leadership,” she says.

It is important to drive change from the top of business, believes Alixandra Pollack, a director at Catalyst.

“Buy-in and championship from the top is a key ingredient in the success and sustainability of inclusivity efforts,” she says. “But employees need to see that, at all levels, others are championing culture change too.”

Sponsors can also reap their own benefits. They receive valuable feedback and learning from their protégés, and a sense of satisfaction drawn from supporting others’ careers.

Sponsorship can “help educate senior directors to the issues young women face”, says Susan Vinnicombe, professor of women and leadership at Cranfield School of Management, who has led the female FTSE board research since 1999.

Lack of sponsorship is one indicator of what Catalyst argues is holding many women back — exclusion from organizations’ most influential networks.

Nathalie Walker, external affairs director at Cambridge Judge Business School, says: “As we continue to strive for equal pay, representation and treatment, there is an obvious value in working together to do that.”

Sponsorship can finesse access to networks, providing impressive benefits to leaders, high-performing employees, and organizations themselves.

Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, associate professor at Henley Business School, says that we are now seeing the next wave of support for women into leadership roles through “championing”, rather than sponsorship.

“Championship is a more sustained relationship between senior executives and female talent, built on trust,” she says, and the relationship is generally continued when one of the pair leaves an organization.

“Champions see the potential and invest time in nurturing it and advocating,” adds Dr Shaheena, “and for many of the champions we have spoken to, this is because they believe in identifying the best talent.” 

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