Sponsorship Key to Moving Women Up CU Ladders
To get ahead, it's time to seek out sponsors, not just mentors.
That was just one key takeaway from the Filene Research Institute and World Council of Credit Unions Women's Colloquium on Leadership held recently at the University of Southern California.
According to Kathleen O’Connor, a management professor at Cornell University in New York, the difference represented a shift in the paradigm from someone to consult with to someone spending political capital lobbying for your next raise, promotion or new job.
The June 19 gathering in Los Angeles was held in conjunction with Filene and WOCCU releasing the results of a year-long study on the challenges women face in credit union management.
O’Connor's session at USC focused on the distinction that while mentors offered advice and encouragement, sponsors not only did that but also used their influence with senior executives to advocate for their mentees.
The Ivy League professor added that mentees must also bring value into the sponsorship relationship in terms of potential and drive. As mentees move up, they too could then pay it forward to others.
O’Connor, associate professor of management at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, urged women to expand their networks by finding sponsors.
Given that the majority of senior leadership roles are held by men, O’Connor advised women to include men as potential sponsors. She also pointed out that women's lack of access to powerful networks and sponsors has been part of the more subtle what she called second-generation biases that hold women back.
Meanwhile, Ben Rogers, research director at Filene, said, “If you want to talk about women in leadership, you have to talk about gender intelligence. The conversation is useful for men and women in uncovering blind spots at your organization, whether it's a lack of role models or gendered career paths.”
The speakers and 91 attendees agreed that explicit gender bias has been conquered but the subtle biases have been more difficult to overcome.
For example, according to Professor Melissa Thomas Hunt of the University of Virginia, the fact that 26% of male respondents in the WOCCU-Filene study and 19% of female respondents have business management degrees, or 25% of men majored in finance or accounting versus just 15% of women, may explain part of the leadership discrepancy.
In addition, according to the survey of 750 credit union employees, 37% of women held a bachelor's degree, while 14% had a master's or higher degree compared to 51% of men who had a bachelor's degree and 28% who held a master's or higher.
Research also revealed that women in organizations with visible female leaders felt more empowered and engaged. It also found that conversely, in terms of expectations of what it would take to step into a leadership position, sometimes women have been hardest on each other, which presented another obstacle to overcome.
“I think every organization is sincere in recognizing the importance of diversity in leadership but it's one thing to hear and another to see female role models in those senior-level positions,” Rogers said. “Each organization should feel responsible for building a first generation of powerful women so that up-and-coming women have role models and potential sponsors.”
The Filene researcher added that boards and hiring executives should demand diverse candidate slates for senior positions and credit unions should track data about how many women leaders are within the organization.
“The first step to addressing the gender intelligence challenge and women in leadership is to track how many are in leadership roles within your organization and how has it changed over time. It allows you to make informed decisions if any changes need to be made. Without the data you’re relying on a gut feeling, which could be wrong,” Rogers said.
“It's nice to finally have numbers to see the types of skills men and women arrive with at the credit union and how it can be a strong determinant in the career path,” he added. “It's important to keep in mind if we are honest about getting women to those senior-level positions.”
Rogers said the colloquium provided good foundation upon which to build and attendees also spent time discussing the next steps.
Looking ahead, plans are underway for release this fall of a detailed report on the research.
“We at Filene are committed to keep the conversation going but to effect change, it's also on attendees, readers and everyone in the credit union community,” Rogers said.
“We’re on a good trajectory,” he added, “and it's better now than it has been in the past so we’ve got to stay committed and passionate about gender intelligence. Incremental changes like tracking or demanding that diverse candidates be included in the executive or senior level search can make a difference.”