A guide for male sponsors of women after #MeToo

Sylvia Ann Hewlett: use common sense to banish fears of gossip
MYMM5A Business partners sitting at airport cafeteria making a toast with coffee cups. Business people at airport waiting for their flight.
‘Noisy and public’: the antidote to suspicion © Alamy

The #MeToo movement has made men “fearful of suspicions or malicious gossip with the result that they avoid having professional women as protégés”, writes Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her recent book, The Sponsor Effect: How to Be a Better Leader By Investing in Others.

About 40 per cent of men and women agree that “recent publicity about sexual harassment at work makes it even less likely that a male leader will sponsor a female protégé — even if she deserves it,” according to research by New York-based Center for Talent Innovation, the diversity non-profit organisation Ms Hewlett set up.

That does not mean men should avoid sponsoring women, she says, speaking at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. Quite the opposite: they should use common sense, such as meeting in a café not a bar, and make their advocacy for junior women “noisy and public”.

“If you are a man sponsoring a woman, or a woman sponsoring a young man, just make sure everyone knows how brilliant that person is. Wear their credentials on your sleeve.”

The book is a follow-up to Ms Hewlett’s 2013 Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-track Your Career, which set out the reciprocity of sponsorship, differentiating it from mentorship.

While mentoring is about paying it forward, sponsoring is about payback. Yet many time-starved executives saw sponsorship — often touted as a good way to advance the careers of women or people of colour — as “a new burden”, she found. “They think they have to do a whole host of special things for the women in their organisation.”

This is not about tokenism. If the protégé is not up to scratch it can backfire, says Ms Hewlett. She cites John McCain’s disastrous choice of Sarah Palin as running mate for the US presidency in 2008: “That’s what can happen when a sponsor fails to choose and develop a protégé correctly.”

Unless senior executives see “very vividly the value in it for them [it won’t] really happen,” she says. The Sponsor Effect codifies the value to the senior person and the knock-on value for the team. To cite some examples in the book: for men, 38 per cent of those with protégés said they had received a promotion in the previous two years compared with 22 per cent who had not had one. For women it was 27 per cent compared with 18 per cent. Male sponsors who advocated for their protégés were “twice as likely” to receive a promotion.

“It’s not special treatment,” she insists. “The baton is passed, advocacy happens behind closed doors among mini-mes. This isn’t a new thing, I’m making it accessible, transparent.” In the book, she interviews 43 sponsorship pairs. A vivid example is Tiger Tyagarajan, chief executive of Genpact, the professional services firm, who spent a lot of time working with Katie Stein, formerly at Boston Consulting Group.

His team was largely made up of Indian male engineers. “He was looking for a different muscle in his executive committee, a different voice,” says Ms Hewlett. He also wanted more senior women. Genpact was expanding in eastern Europe and Mr Tyagarajan wanted to be a talent magnet for the female electrical engineers in those countries. “He knew they wouldn’t be an employer of choice for these women unless they had a critical mass of women at the top,” says Ms Hewlett.

The ideal number of protégés is three. All must be high performers and trustworthy, says Ms Hewlett, but two should not share your background. “It’s the trust thing that is hard to cross lines of difference — 77 per cent of senior leaders exclusively sponsor a mini-me as they have bonds of trust”. Such bonds are likely to include intersecting social worlds such as the same school or supporting the same football team.

As people go through their careers, they should replenish their protégé stocks and find new sponsors. “Unless you’re 85 and totally checked out,” she says, “you always need to refresh your sponsorship group.” The self-employed and women returning from career breaks can also seek sponsors through people they meet at charity work they do or at work functions. “You just have to create some value and impress the heck out of them.”

Ms Hewlett’s next book is on the effect of #MeToo in the private sector. While the outpouring of stories of sexual harassment has revealed pent-up anger and historical abuse of power, she sees a backlash.

This has come about partly because “there’s not been enough due process and proportionality in terms of institutional responses to complaints,” she says. “Clearly there’s been a huge history of sexual misconduct and victimisation of women. This is a complex story.” But, ultimately, she says: “It’s about power.”

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