The sponsorship void

Why women need more sponsors in the workplace


Camille Khodadad

Camille Khodadad is a partner at Hall Prangle and Schoonveld. The head of the employment law group and member of the commercial litigation group, she is a frequent speaker on current trends in employment law and issues pertaining to women in the workplace.

November 2015

Two first-year associates begin working at a law firm. Both have similar educational backgrounds, abilities and accomplishments. One is male, and the other is female. Fast forward 10 years. Which one of these associates is more likely to have a sponsor who will have advocated on his or her behalf? The answer is the male. While men and women both need sponsors in the workplace, women are less likely to have them.

Before delving into this topic, it is important to point out the distinction between the terms “mentor” and “sponsor.”

A mentor typically provides guidance and advice to a subordinate but does not advocate for him or her. Mentors may or may not have real power within an organization.

A sponsor, on the other hand, takes on a more active role with respect to a subordinate’s career development. A sponsor not only provides guidance and advice, but also advocates for the individual. The sponsor has power within an organization and uses that power to help his or her subordinate advance.

In order to advance within any organization, and particularly law firms, men and women need sponsors. While women may have mentors in the workplace, they often do not have sponsors. This lack of sponsorship for women makes it more difficult for them to advance.

Both men and women can be sponsors. Although the playing field is changing, statistics show that men are more likely to be in positions of leadership within an organization.

Accordingly, men are more likely to be effective sponsors because an effective sponsor by definition has power. As women continue to rise to positions of influence within organizations, this will change and more women will be able to act as effective sponsors for both men and women.

I have heard many different explanations from professional men and women as to why women lack sponsors — none of which seem completely accurate to me.

Some say that men are less likely to actively help women because they are concerned about claims of sexual harassment/impropriety. According to this view, if a man shows too much interest in a woman’s career, he may be viewed as having a romantic interest in her.

Others say that men still favor men in the workplace and that this favoritism is intentional gender discrimination. These individuals view leadership as “the good old boys network” which refuses to include women.

Still others say that men naturally gravitate toward helping other men because they have shared interests, hobbies and life experiences. These individuals believe that any lack of inclusion of women is not intentional.

Some say that even women who are in positions of power choose not to help other women because of the Queen Bee syndrome (a topic to be discussed in an upcoming column). Pursuant to that theory, women hold other women back because of fear of competition and perceived lack of sufficient positions.

Regardless of your viewpoint on why women lack sponsors, the important point is that we as a legal community need to address this. By excluding women from senior positions, everyone loses — women, men, organizations and even clients. So how do we work toward changing this?

First, both men and women should take a more active role in sponsoring women. This requires us to go out of our comfort zone and find a woman to sponsor. If you are a man concerned about a claim of impropriety, there are ways to sponsor a woman that would not rise to such claims.

If you are a man who naturally feels more comfortable with other men, find shared interests with a woman who needs sponsorship. If you are a woman who can act as an effective sponsor, help another woman. As a woman who has risen through the ranks, you likely have a unique perspective on the process.

Second, organizations should take note of the sponsorship void and try to address the issue on an institutional level. This may take the form of assigning sponsors to all incoming attorneys or fostering an environment open to sponsorship of women.

Third, as women, we need to actively seek out sponsors. Studies show that women are less likely than men to do this.

I have been fortunate in that I have had two male sponsors and one female sponsor in my career. These individuals played a critical role in my career development. They gave me guidance, training and advice and used their power to advocate for me. Through the process, we all benefited.