Sponsorship Key to Changing the Workplace Landscape for Women of Color

Women of color have had enough at work. 

“White women say that there’s a glass ceiling,” says Sharon Fenster, founder of Sharon Fenster Consulting, a DEI consulting and coaching firm. “I’ve heard my women of color colleagues call it a cement wall.”

The cement wall has left women of color stressed and exhausted in the workplace, as they face a host of barriers including the one-two punch of racism and sexism, lack of representation and appreciation, pay inequality and increased microaggressions. 

Clarissa Fuselier knows how it feels to be overworked and ignored. 

About six years ago, she had a manager who didn’t respect or appreciate her work. Fuselier recalls being passed over for much-earned promotions twice to lesser qualified individuals. 

“All of the opportunities have been sucked away and it leads me no choice but to quit because I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “My manager isn’t in my corner. I’m not getting any sponsorship. Nobody’s raising my voice.”

Fuselier was prepared to leave the company until another manager convinced her to move into a role on his team. A year after that, she had a new manager who Fuselier says “put the gas on her sponsorship and the trajectory of her career.” 

He recognized and acknowledged her contributions and supported her work publicly, even when she wasn’t in the room. He openly discussed pay transparency and compensation with her. Aside from work-related meetings, they consistently met one-on-one to discuss how he could help Fuselier achieve her career goals. 

“I didn’t have the type of stress that I was dealing with in my previous role,” she says. “I was seen as a partner and an equal. I was able to raise my voice and know that I was being heard and get the pay that I deserved.”

Despite companies’ growing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, women of color are over-mentored or under-sponsored. While mentorship can be an important relationship for women of color, sponsorship is the critical action that can unlock and hold open the door for them to succeed. 

Sponsorship vs Mentorship

While sponsors and mentors draw on their experience and help guide workers on their career paths, the relationships are often confused. 

One way to distinguish between mentorship and sponsorship is the person who is being changed, says Rosalind Chow, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University.

“When I think of mentorship, I think of the things we do where we try to change the beliefs or the attitudes or the behavior of the mentee,” she says. 

“When I coach someone, give them advice, compliment them so that they know that they’ve done a good job or give them feedback on what they could be doing differently – that’s all stuff that I’m doing to either make them feel more confident, make them understand themselves differently in the context of work or change their behavior in terms of how they perform,” she adds. 

Sponsors are individuals with influence. Chow says they use their social capital to change how people view the protégée. 

“We essentially are trying to engineer the social environment so that the protégée can be seen and more visible as a person who is worthy of notice, who deserves more opportunities and deserves more responsibilities,” she says. “You’re essentially using your reputation to try and cover for your protege.”

ALSO READ: Developing Best-in-Class Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs 

Why is Sponsorship Important?

The benefits of sponsorship are clear for women of color.

Research from the Harvard Business Review found that Black managers are 65% more likely to progress to the next rung on the corporate ladder if they have a sponsor. When Black employees are sponsored, they are 60% less likely to quit within a year than peers who are not sponsored. 

“The way we were taught growing up is that if you continue to work hard, your hard work is going to get noticed and you’re going to get more opportunities based on the merit of your work,” says Fuselier. “Unfortunately, I had a really hard lesson at that time in my life.”

Fuselier is not alone. Not all Black women receive the sponsorship they need. Only 26% of Black women say they have equal access to sponsorship, compared with 32% of white women, according to research from LeanIn.org. Black women are also less likely than white women to receive support from sponsors and managers, including opportunities to showcase their work or manage people and projects. 

Mayka Rosales-Peterson, Senior Manager of Partner Marketing and Intelisys, a technology services distributor based in California has been in the tech industry for approximately 14 years. Rosales-Peterson says that while mentorship has helped her advance in her career, executive sponsorship has been the ‘cherry on top.’

“It’s that person in the room that says, I’m going to take you under my wing and I’m going to give you an opportunity because I know that there’s a gap and we need to do this,” she says. “They create roles intentionally. They give me the money that I deserve. As Black women, we can do everything in the book, but the key is having a sponsor. We need a sponsor to move the needle in our career.”

Sponsorship can also set women of color entrepreneurs on the right trajectory. 

“All the mentors in the world are great, but if you’re not being sponsored, you’re going nowhere very fast,” says Nneka Enurah, an advertising executive at Amazon Ads and founder of Celebrate & Elevate, an organization that provides career resources and coaching for women. 

“I’m a firm believer that as women navigate their career journey, they need sponsorship. Sponsors are what shift your finances. You need a person who can write a check. A person who can make a decision and it’s unchallenged and says – this is the person. This is the hire. It happens with white males all the time. It’s normalized in that capacity. For Black and brown women, it’s not normalized.”

Who Is Your Sponsor? 

Having a sponsor ‘literally’ pays  – especially if he is a white man. Research from Payscale found that pay outcomes for women of color are more successful when they have a white male sponsor in their corner, as opposed to a person of color. 

“The problem is that they (people of color) don’t have as much social capital as often as white men,” says Chow. “There’s evidence that implies that when women engage in sponsorship, the sponsorship is not taken as seriously as men. The same is true of minorities as well.”

Women of color are more likely to have a sponsor who is a woman and is non-white. 

“White male counterparts are more tapped into the system,” says Enurah. “A lot of white women are very capable of being sponsors, don’t get me wrong. They are, but not all of them. They are also fighting for their place.”

As a white woman, Rachel Nazhand, Vice President of Business Operations at Zelis Healthcare admits that sponsorship of others can be challenging. 

“There’s a hesitancy to take up space and to be seen as combative,” says Nazhand. “We wait for permission rather than create a space. So often, I try to make sure that I’m creating that space for other people because it’s even hard for me to advocate for myself.”

Even as the U.S. becomes more diverse, most senior positions are still held by white men. In 2021, only 13% of women of color had C-suite roles.  

“There’s an underrepresentation of women of color in the C-suite and board positions,” says Syreeta Williams, a Trust Solutions Director at PwC. “Having that sponsor – that voice at the table when that individual is not in the room and advocating on their behalf – this is what will be a game changer for women of color.”

Anatomy of a Sponsor

Chow says sponsorship is not one behavior, but several different behaviors that can be put under the same umbrella. 

“Not all sponsorship behaviors are equally costly,” she says. 

Amplification can include retweeting tweets or congratulating someone who won an award on social media.

“That corresponds to amplification because you’re taking something they’ve done and you’re putting it out there so more people can see,” Chow says. “It’s a lower-cost sponsorship behavior. Yes, you’re elevating their visibility, but your credibility as a sponsor isn’t really on the line.”

When a sponsor boosts someone, they are no longer pointing to a concrete event that’s already taken place.

“You’re talking about something in the future that is more uncertain,” she says. “You’re saying – I’m betting on this person. I am putting in a little skin in the game by guaranteeing some level of performance in the future.”

The next step is connecting – when a sponsor will strategically introduce or couple the protege to people they know. 

“You’re leaning on your relationship with someone – pay attention to this person that I want to introduce you to,” says Chow. “But it can also just be about expanding their visibility as well.”

Defending is the costliest of the behaviors for sponsors because it doesn’t happen as often. Chow says when it does happen, it matters who your sponsor is. 

“With defending, you’re starting with a negative perception and you’re either trying to neutralize it or turn it into a positive impression,” she says. “Changing people’s minds is a very difficult thing to do and it takes a lot of social capital for sponsors to be able to do that effectively. If they aren’t able to effectively defend, it is worse for them than if they hadn’t defended at all.”

How to Get Sponsored

So how do women of color get the sponsorship support they need? Women of color – don’t sit around waiting for a sponsor to fall into your lap. 

“A mentor is someone that you choose,” says Williams. “A sponsor is someone that chooses you. I use that word, choose very loosely, but really to mean where the investment is being made.”

When a sponsor seeks you out, they are validating the competency and skills you bring to the table. 

“You know what I’m capable of,” says Fuselier. “You know what I can do and the value that I bring and you’re in a position where you can speak for me when I’m not in a room. That’s the biggest thing. Your mentor might not always be in your same space, but your sponsor should.”

Women of color can find potential sponsors by networking and making connections.

“You have to start getting comfortable expressing yourself, your values and where you want to go,” says Fuselier. “Because you’re looking for a partnership. You’re not looking for someone to lead you there. You’re looking for someone to say — you want to go here. Here’s what I would suggest and you being able to be an active participant in your growth.”

This may require women of color to repeatedly plant the seeds of their abilities and accomplishments. Fuselier admits that this can be hard, but the crucial component in sponsorship is to be seen. 

“It’s how it works in corporate,” she says. “You can be the person behind the cog, keeping everything moving, but they’re not going to pay attention because they don’t see you. That’s a hard pill for a lot of us to swallow.”