How a Lack of Sponsorship Keeps Black Women Out of the C-Suite

Before 2021, only one Black woman had been CEO of a Fortune 500 company. If we want to see more Black women step into the C-suite, and specifically into CEO positions, they must be sponsored into positions that offer a clear path to the top along with direct advocacy and support. Sponsorship requires leaders to vouch for the merit and legitimacy of protégés as potential successors, and has proved to be a powerful tool for elevating male leaders. Black women, however, find it harder than their white male counterparts to attract sponsors. But leaders and companies can address this by re-imagining the diversity imperative, reviewing succession plans annually, bringing sponsorship into the open and rewarding it, and examining the barriers to CEO succession for Black women.

In the esteemed C-suites of corporate America, we have been waiting far too long for Black women to join the ranks of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies. In 2020, women held the top job at just 37 out of these 500 companies — a record high of 7.4% — and none of those women were Black. Ursula Burns, the first Black woman to ever helm a Fortune 500 company, stepped down from Xerox six years ago. When Rosalind Brewer takes over as the new CEO of Walgreens on March 15, she’ll be the second, and Thasunda Brown Duckett will be the third when she becomes CEO of TIAA in May.

Changing this reality will take more than customary pronouncements regarding the imperative for diversity, or the appointment of yet another chief diversity officer. If we want to see more Black women step into the C-suite, and specifically into CEO positions, they must be sponsored into positions that offer a clear path to the top along with direct advocacy and support.

Sponsorship is the act of using one’s social capital to propel the career advancement of an individual who is commonly referred to as a protégé. While it is often confused with its more common cousin, mentorship, sponsorship differs significantly in terms of both process and impact. While women and minorities are often counseled to obtain a mentor, an experienced veteran who can guide one’s steps and provide psychosocial support, a sponsor is a mentor and much more. Sponsors provide exposure, visibility, and experience through opportunity. While mentorship can be executed privately, sponsorship is highly visible: Sponsors vouch for the merit and legitimacy of protégés as potential successors, and when their protégés succeed, it reflects back on them. Sponsorship has proved to be a strong determinant of career success for male executives. Consider, for example, Steve Jobs’ sponsorship of Tim Cook, Jack Welch’s sponsorship of Jeff Immelt, and Lou Gerstner’s sponsorship of Ken Chenault.

If companies want to make good on their many pledges to value diversity — particularly in leadership roles — sponsorship is the “secret sauce” that spurs career mobility and ascension to the highest ranks. Nowhere has this been more recently visible than the ascension of Kamala Harris to vice president of the United States. In a very public way, Joe Biden leveraged his standing, prominence, and influence to catapult Harris to the second highest office in the land. Significantly, that decision also reflected back on him. Biden’s sponsorship of Harris — the first person of color and the first woman to be elected vice president — shone a bright light on his candidacy and presidential prospects. Harris, polls indicated, was the leading contender with the strongest favorability among potential VP picks. In the form of true sponsorship, a social exchange or mutual benefit transpired.

So, how are high-ranking Black executive women faring across corporate America in terms of sponsorship? This is exactly what I set out to discover in a year-long research project to identify the predictors of sponsorship and protégé success for Black women positioned within one to two levels of the CEO or president of a U.S.-based corporation, compared to their white male counterparts. What I found speaks to the experiences of Black women in leadership and provides insight for achieving greater leadership diversity in the future.

The Elusiveness of Sponsorship

The sample for the study included 72 protégés, closely divided into two groups: 1) Black female protégés and their executive sponsors, and 2) white male protégés and their executive sponsors. The Black women and white men measured comparably across factors such as education, motivation, cultural proficiency, emotional intelligence, and performance. As part of the study, participants were asked to identify their sponsor and sponsors were asked to determine the extent to which those factors contributed to the decision to sponsor their proteges.

Both the findings of the study and the research process underscored the difficulties Black women experience in attracting sponsors. Of the 116 Black women who were originally recruited for the study, 10 were screened out after they indicated that they either lacked or had lost sponsorship, and a number of others dropped out for other reasons. Moreover, Black women who did identify a sponsor were three times less likely than white men to have their sponsor complete the survey, thus precluding me from incorporating their data in my research.

While these results may seem surprising given these women’s high-ranking organizational stature, they’re consistent with the result of a 2015 study by Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation). Coqual’s research said that some Black women are determined to “go it alone” in the hope that their capabilities and track record will stand on their own merits. Others are simply unskilled in building or connecting to an advocate. Yet, studies show that gaining a powerful sponsor is one of the primary ways to overcome organizational reluctance to take a risk on promoting a woman to a key position.

The survey also revealed examples in which the sponsor provided advocacy “behind the scenes.” These one-way efforts don’t fit the definition of the sponsor-protégé relationship as a social exchange that’s mutually beneficial. In these cases, sponsors expressed discomfort with disclosure due to a range of concerns, from being worried about favoritism to fear of appearing to make promises they weren’t sure they could keep. Thus, while the study produced evidence of sponsorship of Black executive women, the overall observation is that it is more challenging for them to obtain and hold on to sponsorship. Women, in general, face barriers that challenge the formation of white male sponsorship: exclusion from informal networks, a lack of opportunity to build affinity or camaraderie with white males, and concerns regarding the appearance or misinterpretation of the relationship by others. The intersection of gender and race only compound these barriers for Black women.

In corporations, executive selections too often revolve around familiarity, comfort, and general acceptance. Sponsorship is a powerful tool because it can push Black female candidates through some of these barriers, but it only works if they can actually attract sponsors.

The Selectivity of Sponsorship

Why do executives choose to sponsor (or not) an up-and-coming leader in their organization? Regardless of the race or gender of their protégé, executives stated that they were primarily motivated to become sponsors “to influence future talent in [their] organizations or field.”

When it came to how they chose to do that, however, and who they chose to invest in, the study provided keen insight regarding who sponsors whom. Only one third of Black women’s sponsors in the study were white men — most sponsors were Black (57%) and almost one third (29%) were women. This breakdown is stark, given that it is white men who are firmly ensconced in the top leadership ranks of corporate America and who proffer the decisions regarding promotability to senior level and C-suite positions. It suggests that the value of sponsorship is likely to be restricted unless an individual of the same race or same sex sits atop the corporate hierarchy. For example, Ursula Burns promotion to president of Xerox was facilitated by the sponsorship of Anne Mulcahy, former chairperson and CEO.

Not surprisingly, all of the sponsors of the white male protégés in the study were men and the majority (73.5%) were white. Consistent with the tenets of the similarity-attraction paradigm, in which people tend to gravitate towards those who remind them of themselves, there is a natural tendency for white men to confer promotability to other white men given perceived or actual similarities. Unless there is a deliberate effort by white men to recognize and act on sponsoring those who have traditionally been excluded from consideration of senior-level opportunities, the current circumstance will be perpetuated.

The Path Forward

While U.S. corporations wax frequently about the diversity imperative and the importance of having organizations that reflect the growing minority populous, too few act on this sentiment. It is time to understand and acknowledge the power dynamic that prevents Black women from reaching the top seat of corporations, or until recently, reaching the top seat only one at a time. Regardless of education, motivation, and personal and professional success factors, being sponsored by a white man remains the primary accelerant to the career mobility of Black women.

Given the findings, the essential question to ask is, “What can be done to propel more Black women into the higher echelons of corporations?” Here’s where to start.

  • Re-imagine the diversity imperative. Eliminate the myriad ways in which diversity training and awareness within companies has become diluted through distractions, such as “diversity of thought and place.” Level the playing field of fairness and equity for Black women by focusing first and foremost on whether they are represented and supported at the highest levels of the organization in successor positions.
  • Audit succession plans annually. Do bench charts reflect a diverse pool of talent who are within striking distance of assuming critical jobs? Are there concrete plans for developing diverse talent and ensuring diverse talent attains the career experiences that will enable readiness for critical jobs?
  • Bring sponsorship into the open. To be effective, this relationship can be neither one-sided nor clandestine. Train all high-level executives on sponsorship: what it is and how to be an effective sponsor of Black women.
  • Reward sponsorship. Those who sponsor Black women should be recognized as contributors to positive organizational citizenship. Sponsors groom those who are considered among the most prized talent of the organization, leading to their accelerated development and long-term engagement and retention.
  • Examine the barriers to CEO succession for Black women. Identify and analyze the factors or attributes that influence the assessment and selection of CEOs to determine the presence of intersectional (race and gender) bias

The paucity of Black executive women at the top of organizations offers indisputable proof that current methods of talent development and succession planning are woefully lacking. The talent pool exists.  With sponsorship, true diversity; that is, broader racial and ethnic representation inclusive of Black women can be achieved.

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