How sponsorship can help women in tech advance

When Gayatri Shenai was a new partner in McKinsey Digital, she faced some tough questions about her qualifications in a meeting with a CEO. She was there as a subject-matter expert, and the CEO grilled her about her knowledge and experience. Eventually, one of Gayatri’s senior partner colleagues, who knew the CEO for decades, stepped in.

“He interrupted the CEO and said, ‘Look, she’s amazing, she’ll do a great job, you need to trust me that she knows what she is doing,’” says Gayatri. “That moment of sponsorship changed my destiny.”

Gayatri Shenai and Devon Chen
Gayatri Shenai and Devon Chen
Gayatri Shenai and Devon Chen

Gayatri went on to work with the CEO in a long and successful relationship. But that early moment underscores how important it was to have sponsors guiding her career.

While women earn about half of science and engineering degrees, they make up less than 20 percent of people employed in these fields. And for many who choose this career path, they are commonly the only person of their gender in a room.

This International Women’s Day, we’re looking at one workplace element that can help reverse those trends for women in tech: connecting with a sponsor who creates opportunities for them and advocates for their advancement.

Choosing and working with sponsors

Expert associate partner Devon Chen has worked with several sponsors throughout her McKinsey career, and she’s now in a place to sponsor others. She says that a successful sponsorship is all about personal chemistry.

“The relationship has to be inherently genuine,” she says. “It helps to build a trust-based relationship through working together or establishing a friendship over time.”

This has been the case for Gayatri, who has now worked with one of her sponsors for 13 years. “He has seen my whole journey,” she says. “He’s seen the difference and growth in me, and he can coach me in a way that matches my personality.”

Sponsors are different than mentors. While one person can fill both roles, Gayatri and Devon say it’s important that a sponsor understands that their role is to not only offer advice, as a mentor would, but also to advocate for opportunities and shepherd someone in early tenure toward their goals.

Black female engineer does computer motherboard soldering

Repairing the broken rung on the career ladder for women in technical roles

Devon’s experience with both sides of sponsorship has taught her the importance of such clarity. “Overcommunicate your support and intentions,” she says. “I very directly tell people I’m sponsoring, ‘I’m in your corner. Ask me for help when you think you might need it. I’m going to offer you advice when I think you might want it.’”

She also suggests setting up regular touch points, such as a monthly call to check in.

In her experience, a good sponsor helps colleagues take the steps needed to progress toward their next role. This means identifying and letting them know of opportunities as they come up; connecting them to specialists in those roles; outlining skills and training that may be needed; and coaching them on building their profile externally and internally.

For instance, when Devon was making a non-traditional career move from data scientist to team lead, a couple of key McKinsey sponsors encouraged and helped her by being honest about challenges she might face. They particularly recommended she develop her project and team management skills, which they helped her achieve.

“They didn’t let the fact that there wasn’t a precedent for this kind of lane change stop them from always asking ‘why not?’” Devon says.

Encouraging women to speak up

For women in tech to benefit from sponsorship, according to Gayatri and Devon, they must put themselves forward to start a relationship and be vocal about their needs and ambitions. This can be challenging for women who may not have always been in environments where this was encouraged—or welcomed.

“Many of the women I’ve worked with have been reticent to reach out and ask for my time and advice,” senior partner and McKinsey Global Institute director Kweilin Ellingrud has said. “As opposed to men I’ve worked with­­­—or even some I haven’t work with—who aren’t shy to come to me and ask. Young women should keep in mind that those around them want them to take up space and want to help.”

There’s no reason women can’t be at the forefront of the sector that’s changing the world.

Gayatri Shenai, McKinsey partner

Gayatri’s advice for women in tech? Stay in tech. She sees too many women leave the sector because they feel alone in the field.

“Tech holds a disproportionate share of impact, opportunities, benefits. It will shape economic growth. We Need a diversity of perspectives,” says Gayatri. “There’s no reason women can’t be at the forefront of the sector that’s changing the world.”

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