The link between sponsorship and risk-taking for women in financial services

We have received a considerable amount of feedback since we released our report last fall on women in financial services, “Closing the gap: leadership perspectives on promoting women in financial services.” But we wanted to focus this update on one finding in particular that resonated with many readers: the role that senior sponsorship plays in career success.

This is a realization many senior executive women point to when they look back on their careers. When we surveyed senior- and entry-level women about success factors, their perspectives differed most significantly on the question of senior level sponsorship. Among senior women, 56 percent agreed that individual sponsorship is a key success factor, while only 31 percent of entry-level women thought the same. And there were other interesting areas of divergence. For example, entry-level women tended to focus on being an effective team player—47 percent cited it as a key success factor. But only 29 percent of senior executive women agreed, pointing instead to leadership and delivery of exceptional skills as more important.

The reality is that sponsorship is important for both men’s and women’s careers. But they experience a difference in the composition of their sponsor networks. Women’s networks tend to skew female, just as men’s networks tend to skew male; women are three times as likely to rely on a network that is mostly female. This can cause a disadvantage over time. Because men hold the majority of senior positions in most financial services companies (the average representation of women in the c-suite remains a stubborn 20 percent), women-focused networks will have fewer leaders who can act as sponsors as they progress in their careers.

This effect is exacerbated at senior levels and in technical roles, where our recent research highlights that nearly half of women report often finding themselves to be “the only one of their gender” in the room or in a meeting. This “only” effect not only lessens the likelihood of women finding senior executive sponsors, it also creates a more negative experience overall for women. Women who are “onlys” more often feel on guard and under pressure to perform, and are 1.5 times more likely to think about leaving their job than other women.

As Beverly Anderson, head of cards and retail services at Wells Fargo, told us: “I’m a huge proponent of sponsorship. I can track the times when my career accelerated due to male sponsorship—mostly white male sponsorship—early in my career. Stalls in my career have been due to the absence of sponsorship or not having the right one.”

One main reason a network of advocates and supporters is so important is that they can create and alert women to opportunities and encourage them to take risks, such as trying out different business units, roles, locations, and even industries to build a broad foundation of experience. Not only are entry-level women less likely than men to have managers who act as their advocates and help them identify opportunities, they are less likely to receive advice on advancement or navigating organizational politics.

This support can be crucial, especially at riskier points in one’s career. Studies show that women are often judged more harshly and more personally for failures in the workplace than men. Having a strong sponsor and network of supporters can help ensure the right conditions are in place for success and performance to be fairly evaluated, allowing women the room to take greater risk.

Senior-level women told us over and over again that they had to be active agents in their own career development—and that meant taking risks. Just being good at their current job was not enough. They had to raise their hand to take a new role or pursue a new path and not get stuck. Many people tend to consider the status quo as the safe bet, but the real risk might be not pushing enough and letting the status quo prevail.

As Kathleen Murphy, president of personal investing at Fidelity, told us: “In general, men seem to have more confidence in their ability to get to the next level, to take the next risk. Women too often are more conservative in their approach. If you are conservative about your career, over and over again over the course of 20 or 30 years, the cumulative effect is that your aren’t going to advance nearly as much as the person who takes risks.”

Of course, there is a great deal that companies need to do to level the playing field for women, especially women of color, starting with ensuring equitable promotions, eliminating unconscious bias from evaluations, and enforcing an open and inclusive workplace culture. But it’s worth considering how senior sponsorship can help women take more calculated risks on a more even playing field with men.

Besides giving women the room to take these risks, sponsorship also helps women overcome failures, to move on and not fear their career will be derailed. As Karen Peetz, retired president of BNY Mellon, told us: “There are inevitable ups and downs [during the course of a career], and the downs get magnified. Often women and minorities give up during that down time, partly because they don’t have the support infrastructure that tells them to keep going, because it will get better.”

To nurture this next generation of senior women leaders, broad policies are not enough; executives must take a more personal approach. Given the importance of sponsorship, we’re heartened that some financial institutions are doing more to encourage it, starting with middle management. These institutions are augmenting their enterprise-wide programs with a more focused approach for women in middle management. This includes engineering strong sponsorship connections with senior leaders where they don’t yet exist to ensure the visibility and support for continued career progression.

This type of personalized effort is an example of an approach that makes the difference between a company truly owning gender diversity and just owning a gender diversity program.