Women need sponsors, not mentors. These are high level, influential leaders who take a visible and active interest in their careers, acting as their advocates behind closed doors, matching them with opportunities, and grooming them for their next big role. Women have the same ambition as men, and are earning advanced degrees at a higher rate. But women’s potential is less likely to be recognized and developed. And therein lies a problem: we are not good at recognizing potential in women and are uncomfortable with women who openly demonstrate ambition. So, what can we do?

  1. Avoid the potential v. proof trap: Research shows that men tend to receive high risk/high visibility assignments (that lead to advancement) based on their perceived potential. Women tend to be more closely scrutinized for direct work experience, especially for high risk/high visibility assignments. If they don’t have direct experience, they tend to be passed over. Next time you are discussing talent, consider your female employees and think in terms of their potential, not just their related experience or proven track record.
  2. Beware of “inattentional blindness.” This is defined as a limitation in perception – we don’t see what we don’t expect to see. It can be applied to the different ways in we notice the contributions of women and men in organizations.

    For example, if we don’t expect women to be strategic, then we are hard-pressed to recognize their strategic abilities even when squarely confronted with them. Instead of giving them credit for it, we might attribute their thinking to the team or to a male colleague.

    To overcome this, we must intentionally work on recognizing leadership qualities women, particularly those that are usually attributed to men. Look for big picture thinking, future orientation, competitiveness, directness and risk-taking ability in women. Also pay attention when a female colleague is talked over in a meeting – and say something. Attribute the idea or comment back to her: Thanks, John. That’s a great way to build on Jessica’s idea.

  3. Confront your own unconscious bias. We all have biases because we are human. Take Harvard’s Implicit Association Test to learn about yours. Pay attention to women who make you uncomfortable and consider the possibility that their behavior violates your expectations about gender. Look out for rationalizations of your beliefs, for example, saying that you would react the same way regardless of their gender.
  4. Rewrite the narrative. Women accomplish far more than they are given credit for. Consider telling their stories in a visible way so that their accomplishments become central to the narrative of success and leadership in your organization.
  5. Be a sponsor. Many leaders feel satisfied once they have identified and recommended women for high potential programs. But sponsorship goes beyond that. Sponsorship is about taking an active interest in another person’s career. It is about visible advocacy that draws attention to accomplishments, potential and promotability. It is also about creating a clear path and timeline for advancement, investing in the journey and helping them get there.

    If you are influential in your organization, make it a point to become a sponsor. Encourage your leadership team to identify sponsorship opportunities, paying closing attention to factors that get in the way of women being recognized.

Written by Sangita Kasturi

Sangita Kasturi leads Action Inclusion which helps organizations maximize diverse talent and build leadership skills through strategic consultations, workshops, training programs, roadmap development and more. Areas of focus include gender equity, unconscious bias, inclusive leadership, conversing across race and culture, leadership development, high impact communication and more. Follow her on Twitter @ActionInclusion or email at skasturi@ActionInclusion.org.

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