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Where there’s a will, there’s a wave: why sponsoring women is a game changer for the gender gap

Sponsorship is about creating space at the leadership table for someone.

If every executive commits to sponsoring one woman, we can boost gender equality in the workplace. Image: Mentatdgt/Pexels.com

Sharon Thorne
Chair Emeritus, Deloitte
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Sponsorship has been disproportionately awarded to men.
  • Deloitte is asking every member of the company's global board and every executive to sponsor at least one woman.
  • Sponsorship must be accompanied by wider institutional changes.

For the last five decades, the World Economic Forum has brought leaders together to discuss the world’s biggest issues: climate change, economic inequality, geopolitical conflict and technological disruption.

One issue especially close to my heart, though, is gender inequality. In December, WEF predicted it will take 257 years to close the economic gender gap – 52 years longer than estimated just a year ago.

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Understandably, closing that gap can feel overwhelming.

But we can all commit to doing a single, simple thing as soon as we return home from Davos, one action that will have a tangible, meaningful impact.

We can all, each of us, sponsor a woman in her career.

When I say “sponsor”, I’m talking about more than lending an ear or offering advice – though we should certainly do both. Sponsorship is about empowerment: It’s creating space at the table for someone, advocating for her and giving her the opportunities, encouragement and feedback she needs to help her succeed.

Sponsorship is a valuable resource – and one disproportionately afforded to men. More often than not, that’s due to unconscious bias. Men – who occupy the vast majority of leadership positions – seek out people who look like them, sound like them and are interested in the same things they are. However unconscious, the phenomenon is pernicious. It creates a cycle in which men give other men opportunities to lead, and women are left behind.

That’s why, at Deloitte, we’ve asked every member of the global board and executive to sponsor at least one woman. We’re hoping these leaders will set the same expectation for their teams, creating a wave of sponsorship across the entire organization – accelerating the careers of thousands of women.

The global workplace gap with women employees.
The global workplace gap in terms of women employees. Image: World Economic Forum

We’ve already seen the positive impact this kind of sponsorship can have on women, and on our organization. For example, just this year, following a wide-scale, concerted effort to give talented women leadership opportunities, the number of women on our global board jumped from 16 to 30%.

Early on in my time at the company, there were a couple of senior partners who took a chance and started sponsoring me. In the years following, one of them assigned me projects and invited me to meetings, put my name forward for committees and introduced me to other senior leaders, encouraged me to take risks and helped me take advantage of every opportunity that came my way.

When others said I was “not ready” – something said of countless qualified women – my other sponsor pushed back and insisted I was. And when I believed I was “not ready” – something believed by countless qualified women – my sponsor sat with me and had me write down the many ways in which I was. Every woman, at every stage of her career, can benefit from this kind of empowerment and affirmation.

Of course, sponsorship alone is not enough to achieve equity in the workplace. Indeed, we need a wave of sponsorship – but we also need a massive tide of individual and collective action, within and across organizations.

We need leaders – and not just female ones – who believe change is critically important, and who hold themselves and their teams accountable for making it. This means setting the tone from the top. Advancing gender equality has to be a priority of each CEO and board, with tangible benchmarks that can be tracked and measured.

We need managers who are unafraid to do things differently, whether it’s rethinking outdated promotion and salary protocols, or overhauling biased hiring practices.

We need modern workplaces that fit the needs of the modern family, where it’s more important how people work than where or when they work. In other words, it’s time to start measuring success in terms of output, rather than input.

And we need investment in the critical “middle” management level, where women often stall in their careers and never reach executive roles. Sponsorship and leadership programmes have a large role to play in preventing that stall, because they provide women much-needed opportunities for exposure and advancement.

We can’t lose sight of the immense amount of action we need to take in order to make our workplaces more inclusive and equitable for all. And we can’t underestimate the big difference that small changes can make.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

So, let’s do both. Let’s work together to make big, meaningful changes in our workplaces – and let’s all commit to making one simple change when we return from Davos, by sponsoring a woman.

Together, we can create a sea change, for our organizations and our world.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalEconomic GrowthEquity, Diversity and InclusionJobs and the Future of Work
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