Recent headlines may sound like they’re describing a promising outlook on women’s advancement in the workplace, but they mostly serve to highlight a maddeningly slow and uneven speed of progress. It’s true that after leaving the labor force in droves during the pandemic, women held 1.5 million more net jobs this past spring than they did before Covid—but the net gain for men was 2.2 million. It’s true that women now hold more corporate board seats than ever before—but in order to reach gender parity by 2030, the percentage of new female directors needs to surpass 50%. And it’s true that women make up 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs for the first time in history—but in some industries, the number of women in leadership is actually declining.
For the last five years, I’ve led a team at JPMorgan Chase called Women on the Move, whose mission is to advance gender equity globally for women inside and outside of the firm. In this role, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about the importance of having a sponsor—someone in a position of authority and influence who provides jobs, stretch assignments, and acts as an advocate to actively support others’ careers—and how women can cultivate them. But from these conversations, one thing has become glaringly clear: There aren’t enough men sponsoring women.
While executive women play an important role in helping other women get to the top of their organizations, much of this problem is simply a numbers game: Men still occupy the majority of senior leadership roles, which means more men are in a position to be an effective sponsor. Achieving greater gender equity in the workplace will require more of them to use their positions to propel the careers of the women in their orbit.
There are multiple reasons why this hasn’t come to fruition. One is an outdated mindset: the belief of many men that sponsoring women colleagues was too risky to their own careers and reputation. Women could fail, or they could step back from their careers after having children, or it could raise eyebrows about the nature of the relationship. (Research has shed some light on just how widespread a problem this last one is: In a 2019 Lean In survey on the effects of the #MeToo movement on workplace relationships, more than a third of men reported that they avoided some interactions with women at work because of concerns about perceived impropriety.)
But as a growing number of companies have become more intentional about supporting gender equity, I’ve noticed that unconscious affinity bias—that is, our tendency to prefer people with similar appearances and backgrounds to ourselves—has become more of a primary blocker of these mixed-gender sponsorships. In fact, 71% of sponsors “are the same gender or race as their primary protégés,” according to a 2019 study by the Center for Talent Innovation (now Coqual). Without deliberate intervention, more men at the top beget more men at the top.
The good news: In recent years, I’ve seen increased interest from men in championing women’s professional growth. Encouragingly, more and more male leaders I speak with simply say they want to develop the women in their organizations so that they can ensure they have the best talent on their teams.
But doing so effectively means getting over the mental block of sponsoring someone whose experience is different from their own. I’m often asked by men about the nuts and bolts of how to be a sponsor for women. There are questions such as, “How long do sponsorships last?” and “How do I indicate I would sponsor someone?” My response to them is that sponsoring others is a long-term commitment. You’re actively helping someone over the course of their career; if you work in the same institution or industry, a sponsorship relationship can last for years, even decades.
Signaling an interest in sponsoring someone is a more nuanced question. Sponsors may not always explicitly tell someone, “I’d like to be your sponsor” (and on the other hand, protégés rarely make such a direct ask). Often, these relationships grow organically after sponsors see their protégé’s work through regular discussions and interactions. This can take a while, as sponsors need time to evaluate performance before they are willing to use their influence and political capital on behalf of a protégé.
All of which points to the need for male leaders to spend time and effort laying the foundation that leads to a sponsorship relationship—to look for ways to collaborate with and informally mentor women on their team.
When I counsel managers, I often share examples of men I’ve worked and observed who have consistently and successfully sponsored women over the years, and who equipped other leaders on their team to do the same. One, Gordon Smith, former co-president of JPMorgan Chase and CEO of Chase’s consumer arm, would hold his managers accountable for identifying diverse talent across the organization, evaluating their progress by looking at their team’s composition across several years. Another, former Facebook and Visa CMO Antonio Lucio, has made it a mission to help women rethink their beliefs around organizational politics, power, and networking. Because women tend to have weaker networks than men, he focuses his sponsorship on encouraging protégés to see the opportunities that come with embracing their power, making strong connections, taking on stretch assignments, asking for help when needed, and working through the cultural nuances of their organization.
Both examples highlight different elements of the support that men can provide, as sponsors or more informally, to help more women reach the highest professional levels. A few others:
- Work with protégés to create long-term skills maps. Think about the skills protégés will need at every level between their current role and their ultimate goal, and collaborate on a plan for how and when they’ll learn each of those skills.
- Build support into training. When a woman on your team begins a new role or takes on a new project, think of sponsorship as a component of the onboarding process: In addition to ensuring they have all the information they need to do the job, also make sure they have the right people in their corner from the beginning.
- Make tough, timely feedback an equal opportunity. Research has found that the feedback managers give women tends to be kinder and less helpful than the feedback they give men. Establishing a foundation of trust will make it easier for sponsors to give feedback and for protégés to receive it.
For men who want to create a more gender-equal workplace, the directive is straightforward: They should do more to identify and nurture the talented women on their team. Their support is critical to accelerating progress and ensuring more women reach the top, to everyone’s benefit.
Sam Saperstein is the global head of Women on the Move at JPMorgan Chase.