Women have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. A staggering 40 percent in the UK said they feel worse off than a year ago, according to February data from our monthly consumer sentiment survey, and more than 20 percent said their finances suffered.
Efforts to help women recover and relaunch their careers must include mentoring. It’s well documented that one of the best ways to remove the invisible barriers holding women back is to provide these opportunities. Mentors can be friends or colleagues who share their knowledge and encouragement. They serve as sounding boards and sources on everything from handling a difficult client to applying for a new job. Ideally, all of us would have several mentors, who could serve as a personal advisory board, helping us develop news skills while we teach each other.
But mentoring alone is not enough. Many women have put their careers on hold while they struggle to balance work and additional family responsibilities. If we want more female leaders in the management pipeline, we need senior executives to sponsor them.
Executive sponsors lend their personal credibility and advocate proactively for junior colleagues. These senior managers not only provide constructive feedback, they use their connections to make important introductions and provide opportunities that women typically don’t receive elsewhere. In other words, they level the playing field by teaching women the unwritten rules that men often learn in less formal settings and by combatting the unconscious biases that are silently acting as a drag on women’s careers. Almost every female CEO Oliver Wyman interviewed for our women in leadership research said an executive sponsor was critical to her success.
Executive sponsors have made all the difference in my career. Like many people, I suffer from a healthy dose of “imposter syndrome.” Despite my academic, professional, and personal success, I frequently doubt my abilities, especially in a (virtual) room with more senior men, who fail to learn my name. It can be difficult to connect with them personally the way they do with each other. My closest executive sponsor has attended those meetings and created space for me to speak and position myself as the expert. He’s also helped me set priorities and used his personal reputation to get me high profile assignments and championed my success.
Admittedly, getting an executive sponsor is a challenge, especially for women climbing the corporate ladder. Top executives, most of whom are men, often find it easier to sponsor someone with the same interests and experiences. In other words, another man. So it’s particularly important for women to volunteer for projects that will expand their networks so others see their capabilities and drive.
If companies really want to be inclusive, they need to make sponsorship a priority and reward executives who lift others up. It’s not acceptable for them to use the excuse that “some people aren’t good at it.” If they’re not, provide the training and build the ask into culture, compensation and progression.
It also means many more men need to become sponsors and mentors because there aren’t enough women in leadership positions. We all learn more when there are different skills and perspectives at the table. We teach each other and try to build a more inclusive and successful culture.
This pandemic is an opportunity to make positive change. When I think about the challenges that women have encountered over the last year, I remember what my grandmothers accomplished. One raised 13 children, and the other encouraged my mother despite family opposition to move to another country at 18 to become the first female university graduate in her family.
My mother eventually moved to the UK where she and my dad hosted dozens of relatives fleeing Kenya, launching what would become a chain of nursing homes with 10,000 employees. Her success defied stereotypes, but imagine what women could do if sponsors and mentors helped level the playing field with men. As our economy bounces back from the pandemic, let’s ensure we all rise together to drive growth and equality of outcome in workplaces and communities where stereotypes no longer exist and everyone can thrive.