“You know that she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business,” Pete Campbell excitedly said about Peggy Olson after convincing her to hand over her big presentation to her colleague and (sometimes) mentor Don Draper in a recent episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
Though misogyny masked in backhanded compliments seems like a relic of the show’s 1960s setting, statistics show that women still have trouble advancing in many industries. The “boys’ club” atmosphere has not entirely dissipated, in advertising or law, even if the bias or discrimination has become considerably less overt.
According to a survey published on February 25 by the National Association of Women Lawyers, though 64% of staff attorneys are women, women account for only 17% of equity partners, with the former percentage declining with years of practice. Many employers have formed mentoring programs through their women’s initiatives to help address the retention of women, but some experts suggest that this is not enough.
In her recently published book, Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know, internationally renowned mentoring expert Ida O. Abbott suggests that men, women and organizations can benefit greatly from more men mentoring and sponsoring women throughout their careers.
Mentoring vs. Sponsors
Abbott describes the difference in mentors and sponsors as the difference between advisor and advocate. While mentors provide advice, counsel and guidance for their mentees, sponsors use their own power and influence to help their protégés obtain promotions or leadership positions. Whereas mentorship can be useful at any time in a career, sponsorship generally comes into play when an individual is looking to move to the next step. Mentorship can often flow naturally into sponsorship, but sponsorship entails a greater investment: a sponsor must take a risk by publicly endorsing a protégé.
Although there are increasing numbers of women in positions to be sponsors, they are outnumbered by the women moving up the ranks who could benefit from their assistance. Because men still make up the majority of those running firms and corporations, for a gender-balanced workplace to be advanced, male mentors or sponsors should seek out talented women. There are some factors that make this challenging, but Abbott makes a compelling case for doing it anyway.
Fortunately, most senior males realize the importance of keeping hard-working women in their firm, especially because research shows that companies with more women leaders generally outperform competitors. Unfortunately, many men are hesitant to mentor or sponsor female protégés for several reasons: (1) unconscious gender bias causes them to feel more comfortable with male protégés; (2) they want to avoid awkwardness or gossip that may arise from male-female relationships; and (3) women often are hesitant to express ambition and are thus easier to overlook. As a result, according to Abbott, “men are 46 percent more likely than women to have powerful backers.”
In her book, Abbott discussed how women often face a “double bind,” or Catch-22, in their efforts to rise to the top. For instance, according to an article in the April 2014 McKinsey Quarterly, women in mid- or senior-level positions want to reach top positions as badly as men do (79 percent compared to 81 percent). However, women are traditionally not expected to be ambitious, whereas masculinity and ambition are directly linked. Women are often less comfortable with self-promotion and political maneuvering; they tend to believe they should, and will, be promoted on the basis of performance. As a result, many women are quiet about their ambition, which, in turn, makes them appear less ambitious to potential sponsors. The societal contradictions are enough to make your head spin.
What can turn the Catch-22 into a vicious circle is the following: Many women turn away from the legal profession as they see less qualified, but seemingly more ambitious, men promoted. Moreover, as more men are promoted and more women leave, sponsors are even more likely to view men as appealing candidates for sponsorship over equally qualified women.
When women do find sponsors, however, they are as likely as men to receive promotions, leadership positions and higher compensation, according to Abbott. Sponsorships can start either through a senior male’s observances of a junior woman’s hard work or through a junior woman openly seeking sponsorship, which will usually require her to prove herself to her potential sponsor. Sponsorship involves a significant personal investment, and thus is always risky. But men must be courageous in order for women to truly become equals in the workplace. Abbott’s book provides practical suggestions for men to follow when preparing to take on a female protégé, as well as ways to overcome specific challenges that may arise.
Mad Men’s Don Draper also serves as a pretty good role model. Without Draper’s mentoring from the outset of her career, Peggy Olson might have remained a secretary. He helped her navigate the difficult waters of the heavy-drinking office culture, and deal with the sexist remarks of clients. Certainly, sponsoring a woman for promotion was even riskier in the ‘60s than today. When Don saw talent in Peggy, though, he made her a copywriter — the first female copywriter at the agency and one of the few women in the field — and helped teach her what he knew. Her hard work allowed her to eventually have an office right next to Don’s, and, for a short while this season, even act as his supervisor. Moreover, with Don’s encouragement and support, she made that presentation that Pete Campbell tried to take away from her. Don wanted to ensure her success even if he was no longer with the company. That is what a good sponsor does.
What’s in it for the sponsor? Besides the good feelings that come with professional altruism, male sponsors receive other more tangible benefits as well. They gain loyalty and support from rising stars, as well as access to the complementary skills of their protégés. Female protégés provide a perspective from someone of a different gender, generation and career position, expanding the sponsors’ understanding and thinking. Moreover, helping create leaders positively adds to the reputations and legacies of both the individual men and their firm or organization.
All mentorship and sponsorship arrangements have proven benefits, but for true cultural change to happen in the workplace, both men and women must move beyond their underlying biases. Organizations will not realize their full without positioning talented performers of both genders for promotions. So, if you are in a position to take on a protégé, take a look at Abbott’s book, then consider one of the talented women in your firm or organization. When it comes to workplace gender imbalance, “[i]f you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.” You might just find Peggy Olson, Esq.
John Edwards, our intern from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, contributed to this post.