By Stephanie Bradley Smith
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, says Stephanie Bradley Smith of HBR.
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.
About the author: Stephanie Bradley Smith is a business executive who specializes in the field of Human Resources. She is currently the Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer for DePaul University and an adjunct faculty member in the Driehaus College of Business.