At the last big Apple media event, I was left scratching my head. Executive after executive came out, presented a new product or upgrade, and emphasized how new and cool it was. But the leaders giving these presentations? The vast majority, not to put too fine a point on it, were old white guys. They may have been talking about the future, but they looked like the past. Given that Apple presents itself as a “cutting-edge” organization, sensitive to the needs of a diverse workforce, why is there only one woman on its executive management team?
Sadly, Apple isn’t an anomaly. Women only make up 14% of the top executive positions at Fortune 500 companies, despite the fact that they comprise 57% of the Unites States workforce, control 73% of consumer spending and 51% of US wealth, are better educated than men (on average holding 21% and 48% more undergraduate and graduate degrees respectively), and that women-led organizations out-perform men-led organizations in share price performance, price-to-book value ratios, and ROI performance.
We believe that a reason women are underrepresented in the top levels of the organization is that they are over-mentored and under-sponsored. The distinction between mentorship and sponsorship and the correlation to corporate advancement has been examined before in several HBR articles over the years, supported by recent evidence from the women participants of the Kellogg School of Management 2015 Executive Management Program, who indicated that 86% of the time, having a sponsor is more closely correlated to their promotion than having a mentor.
This article offers insight into the genesis of mentor/sponsor relationships and provides advice about how all stakeholders—men, women, and organizational leaders—can make the playing field more fair. The key is understanding the basic economic motivators behind sponsorship. Understanding those drivers can help women be more deliberate about the kinds of relationships they need to develop to achieve their aspirations.
Mentoring and sponsoring are two forms of important developmental relationships in the workplace often described through a behavioral lens. However, what has not previously been discussed is the economic imperative underlying the mentor/protégée relationship. Adult Learning Theory helps explain why mentors tolerate a negative economic return. The mentor’s “benefit” is primarily intangible and unmeasurable, most often in the form of “psychic income” or the good feeling knowing that they’ve helped someone else, accompanied by the “esteem-boost” from being admired. The mentor’s “investment” can exceed the “profit” they received from the relationship. This “negative profit” is not only tolerated, a “loss” is often expected.
Conversely, the sponsor/sponsee relationship has, at its root, an economic imperative that predicts a beneficial outcome or “profit” for both actors. The sponsor’s “benefit” is measurable – a future economic gain is expected as a result of the relationship (according to Social Exchange Theory) where individuals interact for profit or the expectation of it. Inherent in the relationship is a quid pro quo expectation—“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Why are men more successful at generating these lucrative sponsor relationships? Some researchers point to the fact that generating and securing a sponsor relationship comes more naturally to men than to women. The quid pro quo expectation is a male-oriented “getting ahead” attribute inherent in the sponsor relationship. Other “getting ahead” male-oriented attributes consistent with sponsorship include: the focus on power and control; self-interest; unbridled assertiveness; lack of empathy; and self-promotion.
Most men we spoke to about sponsorship confirm the natural “quid pro quo” characteristics inherent in their relationships. A typical comment came from Mark, a successful serial entrepreneur in the tech sector and CEO at Pfister Strategy Group, Inc., “An overwhelming majority of those I have sponsored in my arena have been male. It’s not that I am not willing to sponsor women, it’s just that they haven’t proactively asked for my support, and when they have, they haven’t presented a compelling reason for me to sponsor them.”
Women more often display behavioral traits more aligned with “getting along” cultures. These attributes include honesty, trust, morality, altruism, team-mindedness and a focus on the other’s personal benefit. And not surprising, these attributes are more aligned with the characteristics of mentoring relationships. Women tend to provide and expect the developmental relationship be offered out of altruism and for the “collective good” and often are uncomfortable with the notion of the quid pro quo, feeling that they can’t control the future, so would rather not make promises they can’t keep.
A typical comment along these lines comes from Katherine, an HR executive who has been at Cisco Systems for 20 years: “It would never occur to me to make a promise about reciprocating someone’s support sometime in the future. People should do the right thing for the benefit of the organization, and not for any one individual’s advancement.”
We believe that there are some women who have discovered the economic algorithm to “get ahead” in the organization, but the majority of women in the workplace haven’t figured out this quid pro quo requirement—otherwise there would be many more women in the executive ranks. Katherine added: “The women who recognize the quid pro quo phenomenon are referred to negatively as ‘Machiavellian’ even though men who exhibit the same behavior are not.” If we want to understand how to promote women into management roles, we first need to debunk pejorative myths about women in the workplace (see sidebar) and avoid negative stigmatisms for women that demonstrate “getting ahead” attributes. We recommend the following: