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How Organizations Can Engage Men in Advancing Women’s Leadership

When confronting the frustrating challenge of the dearth of women at the executive ranks, it’s tempting to point to men as the problem. Yet the model of Integrated Leadership shows that on the contrary, when properly engaged by their companies, men can play an important role in the solution.

Interestingly, while men as a group have spent the most time in senior leadership and comprise close to 80 percent of the executive ranks, companies typically don’t see the potential of harnessing men’s experience to help advance their female leaders. Many organizations have invested plenty of time, money, and resources into diversity initiatives and women’s leadership/networking programs, yet this hasn’t truly moved the needle at the rate that is needed for the 21st century. HR generally has sole accountability for these efforts and results, rather than considering the significant role that men—who, in most cases, constitute the most powerful stakeholder group in large corporations—could play if working in partnership with women and organizations.

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Who You Know Matters as Much as What You Know—Women Can Advance Their Career Through Sponsorship

Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak at several conferences and client organizations with one common request: to address what really drives women’s career growth and advancement. While we all know that there is no single “quick fix” that will instantly create gender-balanced leadership, one important factor that facilitates better balance is providing sponsorship opportunities for your top female talent.

In SHAMBAUGH’s work with talented female leaders, we’ve found that while high-potential women generally have strong and supportive professional relationships, these tend to fall under the category of mentors—advisors who serve as role models, providing perspective and constructive criticism. But when it comes to understanding the importance of developing relationships with potential sponsors—key high-level decision-makers who are able to go beyond mentoring to advocate on women’s behalf in relation to strategic opportunities and advancement—female leaders still tend to shortchange themselves.

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Who You Know Matters as Much as What You Know—Why Women’s Sponsorship Still Matters

Do you expect that if you work hard to prove your value and differentiate yourself as a model employee that you’ll be automatically considered for career advancement? Research has shown that over three-quarters of women (77 percent) believe that long hours, hard work, and education lead to promotion rather than relationships and key connections.

This belief is simply false—and men know it. As I reported in my recent book Make Room for Her, Catalyst’s research has shown that 83 percent of men believe that who you know matters as much or more than your job skills and level of competence when it comes to corporate advancement. Men focus more energy than most women on building and intentionally leveraging a meaningful network to help them rise in their career. Women would be wise to follow their lead, since studies have shown that women are overmentored yet undersponsored.

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Gender Balance ≠ Gender Equity

In my work with organizations across the country, I find there is a common misconception that having a gender-balanced workforce automatically leads to gender equity. The reality is that simply having a balance of men and women within an organization or on a leadership team does not mean that their strengths and skills are being equally utilized.

Harvard Business School discovered this same reality, as described in a recent article in the New York Times titled “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” Despite solid numbers of female students and faculty, Harvard found these women were not performing at a level commensurate with their potential. Female students entered the program with similar test scores and grades as men, but then consistently underperformed their male counterparts in classes where participation accounted for close to 50 percent of their grade. Administrators found that because the women tended to be less assertive in class than the men, professors had an unintentional gender bias that was reflected in the grades. Similarly, these unintentional gender biases had a negative impact on tenure among junior female professors. Students commonly perceived female professors to be less knowledgeable, experienced and authoritative than their male counterparts.

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Sponsorship Matters – What Organizations Can Do

Not a week goes by that SHAMBAUGH doesn’t get a call from an organization looking for help to better prepare its leaders to advance into more senior positions. One of the most common challenges facing these organizations is identifying and advancing talented women leaders. My last two blogs discussed the importance of sponsorship in advancing more women through the leadership pipeline to create balanced, integrated leadership teams that drive better business results. And while individual men and women leaders are on the front lines when it comes to sponsorship, the importance of the organization and senior leadership can’t be underestimated.

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Sponsorship Matters – How Men Can Help

In Part I of “Sponsorship Matters,” we discussed the importance of sponsorship in building balanced, integrated leadership teams that leverage the strengths of both men and women. Specifically, I addressed what women need to do to gain more sponsorship. However, we need to realize that we aren’t going to make sustainable progress if we only rely on women to change the status quo. So this month, we will look at the role men play in sponsoring women leaders.

Interestingly, men typically are not seen as playing a significant role in advancing women into leadership – that job has been left to the HR or OD department. And because men have often been pushed to the sidelines, they have perhaps become apathetic about supporting women. Yet men are in the best position to sponsor and mentor women because many have spent a significant amount of time in the leadership ranks and hold the most knowledge and experience.

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Sponsorship Matters

Recently I had the honor of doing a global webcast for The Conference Board on the topic of sponsorship. Apparently it was one of the more well attended webcasts for The Conference Board, which tells me that sponsorship is a topic people are keenly interested in.

Before we go any further, I think it’s important to clarify the difference between mentoring and sponsoring – and there is a difference, a big difference. A mentor is someone who acts as a resource and role model, offers advice and counsel, and provides perspective and constructive criticism. A sponsor can also be a mentor, but a sponsor takes it to the next level by being willing to advocate on a protégé’s behalf with respect to advancement and strategic opportunities. Sponsorship means that someone at a high enough level to be influential is committed to you becoming an executive.

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