The lack of women in the C-suite and corporate boardroom has been making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. The issue is symptomatic of a much larger problem: Highly qualified women are not breaking through to leadership positions in numbers commensurate with their presence in the talent pool.
In both the U.S. and the UK, women enter the white-collar workforce in greater numbers than men — 53 women to 47 men in the U.S., and 57 females for every 43 males in the UK, according to data from the Center for Talent Innovation. Yet as employees in large corporations move up the career ladder, men advance disproportionately. In the U.S., women comprise barely a third (34%) of the "marzipan layer," that talent-rich level right below the icing on the corporate cake; in the UK , they make up just under a quarter (24%).
The difference between the U.S. and the UK is startling, especially given the stellar attributes of UK women professionals. New research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that the dearth of women in the C-suite cannot be ascribed to a lack of credentials and certainly not lackluster ambition. Female ambition in the UK is off the charts: Fully 91% of senior-level women surveyed, compared to 76% of UK men, are champing at the bit to be promoted. Compared to American women, they're 22% keener to hold a top job.
Yet despite their formidable determination, they're held back by a variety of factors. Like their U.S. counterparts, UK women are prone to "the tiara syndrome," the belief that outstanding performance is automatically crowned with a promotion.
"I think too many British women still work under the illusion that their hard work will speak for itself," says Kate Grussing, managing director of Sapphire Partners, a UK-based executive search firm that focuses on senior women.
This is certainly true to a certain degree because hard work often does pay off for accomplished women — at least, up until the middle rungs of management. But it's precisely at that point where who you know is just as important as how well you perform. The CTI research demonstrates that to break through to the top, well-qualified women everywhere need sponsors — powerful leaders who are willing to advocate for their next key role, and propel and protect them through the perilous straits of upper management. Yet only 37% of UK women credit personal connections for their most recent promotion.
Unfortunately for women, sponsorship in the UK is largely a male phenomenon: Senior British men are a whopping 50% more likely than senior British women to have a sponsor. The Old Boys' Club is not just alive but entrenched in UK executive suites. Consequently, when choosing who to groom for leadership, C-suite executives — overwhelmingly white males — reach automatically for a "mini-me."
When women can break into the Old Boys' Club, the result is breathtaking. The research by the Center for Talent Innovation demonstrates that UK women with sponsors are 52% more likely to be satisfied with their rate of advancement than those without. With a sponsor advising and cheering them on, they're 25% more likely to ask for a pay raise and 58% less likely to plan on quitting within one year. Sponsors have an even more powerful impact on working mothers: Unsponsored working mothers are more than twice as likely as their sponsored peers (14% versus 6%) to plan on leaving their firms within a year.
Women can't passively wait for a chance to break through. Sponsorship is a two-way street, a strategic alliance that demands that the protégée give 110% in terms of loyalty and performance in order to sustain the commitment of the sponsor. To be sure, women often excel at delivering on both of these fronts, but to win the interest of a sponsor, they must also deliver a distinct personal brand, a set of skills or credentials that will burnish the sponsor's image and extend his reach.
Women need to target, acquire, and assiduously cultivate these crucial relationships early in their careers and continue to tend and grow them as they rise through the ranks. Companies that have made significant investments in mentoring their standout women need to capitalize on this investment by creating pathways and forums where female talent and senior leaders can connect and forge mutually beneficial alliances.
Neither talented, ambitious women nor their employers can afford to ignore the stunning impact of sponsorship on women's ability to get to the top. Only through the efforts of both can outstanding women realize their full potential and employers realize the significant competitive advantage that female leadership confers.