The Power of Sponsorship

March 29, 2021

Finding Advocacy for Women in Innovation

In recent years, companies around the world have made vast improvements on the diversity front. Gender equality is on the rise, with three quarters of companies worldwide now including at least one woman in a senior management position.

At the same time, women still represent less than 8% of CEOs in the companies of the S&P 500 — despite women making up approximately half the U.S. workforce, and having more than half of college diplomas. 

According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, not enough women are being assigned the kinds of high-stakes projects that can lead to the C-Suite. This is largely due to a lack of sponsorship on the part of higher-ups inside the proverbial boardroom. 

Indeed, while most businesses mean well, their “tick the box” approach to diversity and inclusion can only go so far towards creating genuinely inclusive work cultures. 

Apply the Power of the Sponsor

According to Lizzie Azzolino, Global Leadership Development Lead at WIN: Women in Innovation, even the most heartfelt efforts — such as creating women’s networking groups — risk prioritising the collective over the individual. 

“If women truly want to achieve individual leadership,” says Azzolino, “they need to understand and apply the power of the sponsor.”

But what do we mean when we talk of sponsorship in the workplace? What’s the difference between a sponsor and a mentor? And what should women be looking for in a sponsor? 

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, Streetbees — in partnership with WIN — hosted a virtual roundtable to discuss these questions and much more. Our lineup of speakers delivered tips and insights — as well as personal stories — about finding advocates and breaking down the barriers that often prevent women from becoming leaders in innovation.

The following report summarizes several of the ideas discussed in the event.  

The Ingredients of Success

Sure, successful people like to believe their success has resulted from a combination of hard work and natural ability. And to an extent, they’re right.

But career success never occurs in a vacuum. On the way up the ladder, we coordinate with colleagues, report to managers, and seek the help of advisors. And this network of individuals becomes an essential third ingredient — along with the requisite hard work and talent — in our recipe for success. 

Effective networking is especially crucial for minority employees, including women. Often people gravitate toward others who are similar. Sadly, this applies to similarities in more than just interests, but in age, race, and gender. As a result, powerful people — who are disproportionately male — often advocate almost exclusively for other men. 

They may mean well. In fact, they likely don’t even realize their actions serve to reinforce the historical exclusion of women from leadership roles. And it’s exactly this — the unconscious discrimination of professional sponsorship — that makes true inclusiveness so resistant to “tick the box” approaches.

Hidden Bias

According to Tugce Bulut, CEO and Founder of Streetbees, unconscious or hidden bias can cause as much — or even more — harm than conscious bias or deliberate discrimination. 

Situations that are “bluntly discriminatory,” as Bulut puts it, can be easier to deal with. You know what needs to be done. You move forward. 

Hidden bias, on the other hand — by its very hidden nature — can sew self-doubt and even self-discrimination. 

Having worked in the male-dominated private equity field for seven years before creating Streetbees, Bulut has long since understood how even the language of business sometimes reinforces gender bias. This is why, at Streetbees, she insists on avoiding language such as “female entrepreneurs” or “female CEOs.” 

“Nobody’s talking about a male entrepreneur,” she says.

Vidisha Gaglani agrees. The Chief Client Officer at Streetbees says, “If you’re experiencing that hidden bias, you may start doubting your own abilities. And if you don’t have the right advocates in place, you’ll always wonder and always sort of doubt yourself, because you don’t want to fail.”

Innovation Requires Inclusion

One of the ironies of male dominance — and other forms of homogeneity — in leadership roles is that diversity and inclusion are key factors in a business’s ability to innovate.

“Businesses that actually want to progress in a world that’s disruptive need innovation,” says Andrew Pearce, Managing Director at Accenture. “And yet innovation comes from a diversity of thought and voices.”

Indeed, when a company’s leadership lacks diversity, it will also lack depth in its understanding of consumers. According to Ramat Tejani, Inclusion and Marketing Manager at Amazon Web Services, a dearth of women at the leadership level hobbles a company’s ability to connect with its customers.   

“There is a group of people that sit at the top of the hierarchy,” she explains, “that doesn’t include the representation of the customers that they are trying to serve — or even the employees that they are trying to serve.”

A Murky Path

But what do we really mean when we talk about innovation? 

Lizzie Azzolino describes it as a rather murky term that gets thrown around a lot without people fully understanding what it is.

“You can be an innovator in a range of environments,” she says. “Start-ups, consulting firms, a corporation, a non-profit. Given this, the path to innovation leadership is also quite murky.”

This is why finding and making the most of a good sponsor can be such a game-changer for women in innovation. “Something — or, more specifically, someone,” says Azzolino, “has to open doors for you that allow you to get to the next level.”

Sponsors Vs. Mentors

When you’re a minority in a given setting, it can be tempting to assume that, so long as you work hard enough, your efforts will be noticed. Sadly, without a sponsor, that’s just not often the case.

It’s essential that you have someone two- to three-levels your senior, singing your praises when you’re not in the room — and advocating on your behalf when key opportunities arise in discussions you’re not privy to.  

Sponsors are not to be confused with mentors, though. A mentor will sit down with you and talk about your career strategy. A sponsor will sit down with others and talk about you, promoting your involvement in the sort of projects that lead to higher visibility.

Typically women are over-mentored and yet under-sponsored. Based on Streetbees’ data, women are far more likely than men to be assigned a mentor, and yet they are much less likely to say that a senior leader outside their direct management has helped them get a promotion. 

This discrepancy even creeps into the mentor-mentee relationship itself, with far fewer female Streetbees users than men reporting that a mentor has actively tried to further their career.

Don’t Be Afraid to Hear “No”

Finding the right person to sponsor you is far from easy, especially for women. The sponsor-sponsee relationship works both ways, after all. A sponsor puts his or her reputation on the line by sponsoring you. 

Plus, they’re not sponsoring you just because they like you (although that is usually part of it). They’re looking for people who will carry the business in directions that matter to them.

So what are some things women can do to find and secure the right sponsors?   

Be bold. Andrew Pearce urges women to speak out about their accomplishments. In particular make sure that potential sponsors know about the work you’re doing. “You have to be deliberate,” he says, “because your male colleagues will be.”

Take stock. Ramat Tejani suggests that women pause to consider the timing before seeking sponsorship. Consider whether you’re in the right mental, emotional, or professional space to kick your ambitions into overdrive. “Do an inventory. Is this a time in your life when you can go the extra mile?”

Bring value. Tugce Bulut argues that this is imperative in any business relationship. People will be happy to promote or sponsor you when they are getting returns on their investment of political capital. She suggests asking yourself, “What is the value add that I’m bringing to the table so that it is in this person’s interest to sponsor me?”

Ask for what you need. This is perhaps the most important theme that arose during our virtual conversation about sponsorship and women in innovation. The next time someone compliments your work, engage them in a conversation about how you feel you could make even more of an impact. Don’t be afraid to be told “No.” If you aren’t willing to ask someone to sponsor you, you’re surrendering the chance of hearing someone say “Yes.”