Why Sponsorship is Important for Women of Color

Clarissa Fuselier knows how it feels to be overworked and ignored. 

About six years ago, she had a manager who didn’t respect or appreciate her work. Fuselier recalls being passed over for much-earned promotions twice to lesser qualified individuals. She was prepared to quit. But everything changed when Fuselier got a new manager who she says “put the gas on her sponsorship and the trajectory of her career.” 

He recognized and acknowledged her contributions and supported her work publicly, even when she wasn’t in the room. Aside from work-related meetings, they consistently met one-on-one to discuss how he could help Fuselier achieve her career goals. 

“I didn’t have the type of stress that I was dealing with in my previous role,” she says. “I was seen as a partner and an equal. I was able to raise my voice and know that I was being heard and get the pay that I deserved.”

Women of color are facing a cement wall in the workplace. They are stressed and exhausted and facing a host of barriers including the one-two punch of racism and sexism, lack of representation and appreciation, pay inequality and increased microaggressions. Despite companies’ growing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, women of color are less likely to be sponsored – a critical action that can unlock and hold open the door for them to succeed. 

What is Sponsorship?

With sponsorship, people with influence use their social capital to change how people view the person being sponsored, says Rosalind Chow, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We essentially are trying to engineer the social environment so that the protégée can be seen and more visible as a person who is worthy of notice, who deserves more opportunities and deserves more responsibilities. You’re essentially using your reputation to try and cover for your protege.” 

Research from Harvard Business Review found that Black managers are 65% more likely to progress to the next rung on the corporate ladder if they have a sponsor. When Black employees are sponsored, they are 60% less likely to quit within a year than peers who are not sponsored. 

“I know from firsthand experience on multiple occasions – sponsors are what shift your finances,” says Nneka Enurah, an advertising executive at Amazon Ads and founder of Celebrate & Elevate, an organization that provides career resources and coaching for women. 

“You need a person who can write a check. A person who can make a decision and it’s unchallenged and say – this is the person. This is the hire.”

Yet, not all Black women receive the sponsorship they need. Only 26% of Black women say they have equal access to sponsorship, compared with 32% of white women, according to research from LeanIn.org. Black women are also less likely than white women to receive support from sponsors and managers, including opportunities to showcase their work or manage people and projects. 

Benefits of Sponsorship

Mayka Rosales-Peterson, Senior Manager of Partner Marketing and Intelisys, a technology services distributor based in California has been in the tech industry for approximately 14 years. Rosales-Peterson says that while mentorship has helped her advance in her career, executive sponsorship has been the ‘cherry on top.’

“It’s that person in the room that says, I’m going to take you under my wing and I’m going to give you an opportunity because I know that there’s a gap and we need to do this,” she says. “They create roles intentionally. They give me the money that I deserve. As Black women, we can do everything in the book, but the key is having a sponsor. We need a sponsor to move the needle in our career.”

Having a sponsor ‘literally’ pays  – especially if he is a white man. Research from Payscale found that pay outcomes for women of color are more successful when they have a white male sponsor in their corner, as opposed to a person of color. 

“The problem is that they (people of color) don’t have as much social capital as often as white men,” says Chow. “There’s evidence that implies that when women engage in sponsorship, the sponsorship is not taken as seriously as men. The same is true of minorities as well.”

Even as the U.S. becomes more diverse, most senior positions are still held by white men. In 2021, only 13% of women of color had C-suite roles.  

“There’s an underrepresentation of women of color in the C-suite and board positions,” says Syreeta Williams, a Trust Solutions Director at PwC. “Having that sponsor – that voice at the table when that individual is not in the room and advocating on their behalf – this is what will be a game changer for women of color.”

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