Why More Women Should Ask for Sponsors, Not Mentors

For young professionals, it is often said that mentors are an invaluable resource for advice, steering rising stars in the right direction and supporting their professional development.

But to climb the corporate ladder in today’s competitive landscape, a number of top executives in the retail industry are pointing to the need for more powerful backing for women professionals in the form of sponsors.

At a panel during NRF 2020: Retail’s Big Show on Monday at the Javits Center in New York, Rent the Runway chief people officer Tammy Sheffer stressed the importance of leaders who not only will help craft their workers’ visions but are also willing to take steps to advance their careers — a role that she said is disproportionately more challenging for female employees.

“Men get sponsorship, and women get mentorship,” Sheffer explained at a discussion moderated by PwC’s principal and chief purpose and inclusion officer Shannon Schuyler. “Mentorship is about skill-building, [which is] extremely important in one’s career, but it doesn’t change your career. Sponsorship has the power to change your career. That is the difference.”

Mercedes Abramo, president and CEO of Cartier’s North America division, echoed that sentiment. “Sponsors are actually giving up some of their capital in order to sponsor you,” she said. “They’re going in front of their peers and saying, ‘I believe in this person.’ It’s a risk for them.”

According to a survey published in June by the Working Mother Research Institute, 48% of men said they had received detailed information on career paths to C-suite jobs in the past 24 months, compared with just 15% of women. Additionally, while 54% of men said they had a career discussion with a mentor or sponsor in the previous two years, only 39% of women said they did.

Further, the study noted that 41% of women — versus 62% of men — said they had a strategic network of coaches, mentors and sponsors whom they can look to for guidance on their careers.

Although some experts insist that sponsors tend to choose their protégé rather than the other way around, Macy’s chief diversity officer Shawn Outler encouraged female workers to be bold, take initiative and make the ask themselves.

“[We have to] really ask for what we want … and be really sure of our beliefs and our capabilities and the fact that we deserve a seat at the table,” she added at the NRF panel. “It’s important to be really intentional and to share. We have to show up differently and challenge everyone in front of us — who could be a potential mentor or sponsor — to really help us.”

However, such a step can be daunting for entry-level employees or workers starting out in a new field. According to research shared in August by leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman, the largest gap in self-reported confidence was found among workers under the age of 25. The study also showed that just over 30% of women in their quarter-life or younger said they felt confident, compared with nearly 50% of men.

“I think that’s something that a lot of young people, no matter the gender, need to do more of: Really talk about what their aspirations are and advocate for themselves, and more of us leaders need to be listening so that two-way street happens,” Abramo advised. “It’s about encouraging an open dialogue. We just have to have inclusive cultures that allow for all of that to happen.”

During the panel, speakers also touched on diversity and inclusion in corporate culture, a particularly pressing subject following a string of perceived D&I missteps at high-profile brands including Adidas, Nike, Gucci and Prada.

For Outler, who recounted her 25-year experience in the retail industry, the journey to Macy’s was characterized by her desire to succeed in an environment that lacked leaders of color. (She was named Macy’s first diversity chief in October 2018.)

“Starting out, I was often isolated and the only one. In terms of mentorship and support, I had to really seek that out on my own versus it being organic for some others,” she said. “As my voice has gotten a lot stronger, I began to really ask for what I wanted and what I needed.”

Today, Macy’s is among the retailers that are taking aggressive steps to boost diversity and inclusion across its ranks as well as with consumers and external stakeholders. It also announced a bold diversity plan in September, which includes a requirement for 50% representation of gender or gender identity, ethnicity, age, size and disabled persons in its advertising by 2020; 30% ethnic diversity at the senior director level and above by 2025; and a goal to achieve diverse supplier spend of at least 5% by 2021.

“We have a lot more room to grow,” Outler added. “We, as women, have to support each other, have to advocate for one another and seek each other out. There’s progress being made, but we still have work to do.”

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