Major national companies try 'sponsorship' as new hammer to break glass ceiling

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

Kent Gardiner, chair of a prestigious Washington law firm, thought he and his fellow managers were doing everything right to promote women and people of color. Crowell & Moring hired roughly equal numbers of men and women out of law school. It had mentoring programs, women's initiatives, a diversity council. It opened a child-care center and embraced part-time and flexible schedules.

Still, the largely white male power structure barely budged. Most of the women and people of color at the firm were stuck in the middle rungs; just one-quarter of the firm's partners are women, and about 10 percent are people of color.

Gardiner didn't understand why. Then he read a Harvard Business Review article by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett about unconscious bias in the workplace — and the power of a growing practice called sponsorship to counter it. Gardiner finally began, as he says, to "get it."

Unlike mentors, who typically are available to offer advice or a shoulder to cry on, sponsors are people in positions of power who work on a protege's behalf to clear obstacles, foster connections and assign higher-profile work to ease the move up the ranks. Hewlett's research found that, while women have been "mentored to death," men are more likely to be sponsored, which translates into higher pay and a more ambitious climb to the top.

Some of the nation's most influential firms, motivated by the desire to have their leadership better reflect the diversity of their customers as well as research that has shown that firms with more diversity at the top perform better, are embracing this new way of breaking through the corporate glass ceiling.

Last year, Crowell & Moring joined them. Gardiner and managing partner Ellen Dwyer partnered with Hewlett's Center for Talent Innovation's advisory arm, Hewlett Chivée Partners, on an initiative to promote sponsorship. Sixteen other corporations, including American Express, Intel and Bristol Myers-Squibb, also are in on the initiative.

Sitting in his office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, Gardiner said that so far sponsorship has proved to be an effective tool in prying open the informal "old boys' network," which is how Hewlett says power traditionally has been transferred: built on relationships among people with strongly similar backgrounds and perspectives, usually white men.

"Law firms tend to be very white, very male and [tend to stick with the same] demographic in terms of moving power and authority down to other people," Gardiner said. "So the idea that you've brought in a class that's more than half women lawyers doesn't mean that half the organization is going to be led by women in any reasonable time in the future. Likewise for people of color. More so for people of color."

To get a better handle on whether and how attorneys perceived bias, Hewlett's center facilitated an anonymous, electronic chat where everyone up to junior partner could log in and have their say.

"It was a really sobering experience," Gardiner said, sighing. "Those of us who've grown up at this firm and been successful here really think it's pretty modern. But it turns out that important swaths of our community felt they had little opportunity to advance, that they didn't really understand how to succeed and they were seriously contemplating different career paths." Those swaths were overwhelmingly female and from minority groups.

Crowell & Moring is known not only for its government contracting and regulatory practice but also for its quirky culture. The firm itself was founded in 1979 when 53 Jones Day lawyers walked out to form a company with a more democratic and collegial environment. Today, a flotilla of rubber duckies floats in the company fountain.

But the survey showed Gardiner that the firm wasn't as truly democratic or collegial as leaders thought.

He and others began meeting privately with some of these more junior attorneys and created a "safe zone" where senior attorneys could just listen. Gardiner took on several proteges, and the firm is tracking 20 participants in the sponsorship initiative. And now, much like a matchmaker, Gardiner said, he and others try to "nudge" potential sponsors and proteges toward each other.

Gardiner is quick to point out that there is no formal "list" of sponsor-protege pairs. Rather, much in keeping with the informal spirit of the old boys' network, the firm seeks to create a culture where more senior sponsors, trained to be more aware of unconscious bias, will "organically" seek out talented junior proteges of both sexes and all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

"The firm's future rests on this sponsorship initiative," Gardiner said. "If you enhance the diversity and perspectives and ways of thinking about a problem based on different life experiences, different approaches, you create more opportunity for innovation. You're not trying to solve the problem the same way you did the last 10 times.

"So we've got to get this right."

In the elegant Crowell & Moring conference room on a recent evening, Hewlett explained that the informal sponsoring that favors white men is the result of unconscious bias, and that unconscious bias is simply the way the brain works, quickly and automatically sorting people into categories.

Tests to measure those automatic biases have found that it's not just men: Men and women more easily associate men with careers and women with home and family. In fact, women even more so: 83 percent more easily think of men being associated with careers, compared with 77 percent of male test takers.

"I think the sex difference in stereotype strength says something about the extent to which gender stereotypes are established in girls early in life but reinforced pretty continuously thereafter," said Tony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who researches implicit bias.

Also, Hewlett said, test takers of all races and ethnicities tend to unconsciously favor whites over others.

"I call it the 'Mini-Me Syndrome.' If I'm a boss, I'm going to feel more comfortable with people who look like me, talk like me and act like me," she said. "This is why sponsorship does not easily cross lines of gender and race, because, with someone that different, it's just that much harder to create bonds of trust."

In surveys of more than 10,000 professionals in the United States and Britain, Hewlett found that while women are more passively mentored, men are 46 percent more likely to have an active sponsor who throws opportunities their way and speaks highly of them behind closed doors. Whites are 63 percent more likely to have a sponsor than people of color.

Anna Beninger, a senior research associate at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that studies how to create inclusive workplaces, has tracked 10,000 male and female graduates from elite MBA programs to get to the roots of the gender gap. Her research found that, over the years, the women have had more mentors, but the men had more mentors in positions of power.

"A mentor is someone you may have known for a long time, not necessarily in your current organization, who cares about your personal and professional advancement and who will have a cup of coffee with you and give you advice," Beninger said. "A sponsor is most often highly placed in your current organization. They're not likely to have a cup of coffee with you, but they're in a position to put your name forward for critical assignments, because you're very good at your job and they're aware of your capabilities."

Contrary to the "Queen Bee" myth of powerful women being hostile to other women, Beninger said their research found "overwhelming evipredence" that senior women sponsor younger women. "It's just that we have far fewer women in power in general."

At Crowell & Moring, as Hewlett rolled through a PowerPoint presentation of women and minorities caught in what she calls the sticky "marzipan" layer just below the top rungs of power, heads around the room nodded in silent agreement.

Women make up less than 8 percent of the top earners in Fortune 500 companies, about the same as 15 years ago. They make up 16 percent of the corporate officers and only a handful of chief executives, despite the fact that women have been graduating from college in greater numbers than men since 1985.

In law firms, surveys have found that while women and minorities make up 40 percent of firm lawyers, 75 percent of the partners are white men. And those ratios haven't moved much in the past five years.

"It's often said that women and minorities are risk-averse and they don't stick their necks out," Hewlett said. "But women and minorities aren't suicidal. If you don't have a sponsor, you think twice before taking any risks." That's because if you fail without a senior person on your side, you can sink your career, she said.

The reason women still lag behind in pay, promotions and power in nearly every industry in every country is not solely because of children or caregiving responsibilities, as many people assume.

"About 40 percent of professional women managers actually don't have children by age 40," Hewlett said. "They're just as stuck as mothers. And we find that's true in work we've done in Germany, in the U.K. and India, not just the U.S."

Women who have active sponsors, her research showed, are far more likely to return to work after having a child and much more likely to continue working.

Of the other companies in Hewlett's sponsorship initiative, nearly one-third of the proteges at Bristol-Myers Squibb have been promoted, as have one-third of the sponsors. Thirty percent of the 60 proteges in Intel's "Extend Our Reach" sponsorship program have taken on expanded jobs, and nine were promoted to vice president. At Sodexo, managers' performance evaluations now include whether they have actively sponsored talented junior staff, including women and minorities.

At American Express, where women make up 60 percent of its global workforce but only 18 percent of its executive managers, the company has trained 90 percent of its senior leadership on brain research and unconscious bias in the past two years and put eight groups of 15 to 20 women through a formal program. More than one-third have since been promoted or given broader responsibility.

"The exposure the women were given through their sponsors facilitated moves that perhaps would not have happened otherwise," said Valerie Grillo, the chief diversity officer for American Express.

At Crowell & Moring, Hewlett talked about the benefits of not only having a diverse workforce — across age, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender lines — but also of a workplace culture that puts those diverse voices at the decision-making table and values and acts on what they say.

"Our findings demonstrate a robust correlation between highly innovative, diverse companies and market growth," she wrote. These "two-dimensional" diverse firms are 70 percent more likely to capture new markets and 45 percent more likely to improve their market share.

"Companies with multicultural workforces have the means at hand to grow and sustain innovation," Hewlett said. "The secret isn't a surfeit of creativity, although creativity helps. It isn't a lone genius, although genius never hurts. Rather, innovative capacity resides in an inherently diverse workforce where leaders prize difference, value every voice and manage rather than suppress disruption."

Kirsten Nathanson, a lawyer who specializes in environmental litigation and one of the proteges at Crowell & Moring, said it's critical that proteges do exemplary work and earn their sponsorships.

Hewlett's research found that women tend to keep their heads down and expect that good work will be noticed and rewarded, like in school. She calls that "the Tiara syndrome."

"Sponsorship is a two-way street," Nathanson said. "You can't sit in your office like a good worker bee getting straight A's and expect to succeed."

Before Crowell's sponsorship push, she said, she was the product of an "accidental sponsor," who spoke out on her behalf behind closed doors.

That advocacy, she said, helped her rise, even as she worked part-time for seven years while her children were young. Still, she saw men getting career-making opportunities for which women of equal stature weren't even considered. She sat in on meetings where a woman would try to make a point and be ignored. Then, 10 minutes later, a man would make the same point, and everyone would embrace it.

"That's where sponsorship really comes in," she said. "You need someone in that room to point that out and advocate for you."

For protege Astor Heaven, an African American and former officer in the Navy, speaking out was never a problem. But Hewlett's research shows that, for many people of color, establishing trust with a sponsor can be difficult. More than one-third of the African American professionals in middle management she surveyed said they don't see themselves rising to the top in their organizations.

But Heaven said he aggressively sought out sponsors who could help him reach his goals, and he wouldn't have advanced as far as he has without them.

"For me, having a sponsor was critical," he said. "After a more senior colleague left, it was my sponsor who said to other partners, 'Look, Astor can take over for this person.' That's largely what propelled me to where I am now — the fact that someone was looking out for me."

James Regan, one of the firm's partners, said sponsors have to not only do more work than mentors but also have to be willing to share the spotlight. He recommended that a talented female colleague succeed him in a key leadership position.

"In theory, sponsorship is a good idea, but you have to show success," he said. "Nothing's going to change unless you can show you're making a difference."

It's slow going.

Older, senior men, who may have little in common with the younger women and people of color, often don't know where to start.

"There's this self-consciousness. If you're an older white male who's perfectly successful, you really don't think you have much in common with a young woman who's the same age as your daughter," Gardiner said. "And there's a lot of perception issues. A lot of risk. People refer to it as the third rail. Do you really want to be seen frequently with a junior woman, one-on-one? Does that create an impression for rumor-mongering, or worse?"

Still, some sponsors and proteges see the firm's culture start to shift.

"At the outset, there seemed to be a sentiment that only underperformers would need to be sponsored," Dwyer, a managing partner, said. "That is simply not the case. And when you ask partners to reflect on their own experience of being sponsored, they finally get that. It's a critical aha moment."

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