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March 01, 2022

Breaking the bias: increasing the number of women in leadership positions through the power of sponsorship

 Breaking the bias: increasing the number of women in leadership positions through the power of sponsorship
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias, with a goal of celebrating women’s achievement, raising awareness against bias such as stereotypes and discrimination, and taking actions for equality. From the recent Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Insight survey by the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP), despite an over-representation of women in the profession, the proportion of women decreases as seniority increases, and even fewer racialized women are in senior leadership roles. Although there are critical gaps preventing women from getting into leadership positions, there are some foundational elements that could help fill these gaps.
High-profile projects, career advancements, and industry connections are some of foundational elements needed for landing women in leadership roles. Aside from success traits such as working hard, advocating for oneself, persevering, being confident, being optimistic, and so forth, there is another foundational element that is most important - relationships. It should be noted that many of these success traits are stereotypically not associated with women. Enter the double-bind whereby women’s ability to lead is undermined by gender stereotypes. Women of colour have reported to experience even greater instances of micro-aggression, bias, and stereotyping in the workplace. How can we challenge this? We must ask ourselves regularly and honestly, “If this woman’s gender or race was reversed, would you assess or perceive them in the same manner?” We must then demonstrate this through policies and actions that aim to reverse gender and racial biases. Another way to challenge the biases is to build relationships with women planners, especially those who are less seasoned.
Among the various relationships that a woman would have in her professional world, sponsorship is the most powerful, and frankly, useful. A sponsor is someone in a position of authority who uses their influence (this could be a person of any gender identification) to advocate for less seasoned women. Going beyond knowledge sharing (what a mentor typically does), a sponsor spends their personal capital to advocate for high-stake assignments, advancement opportunities, and/or professional connections. Some leaders may view sponsorship as a relationship that puts their reputation at stake, and in some instances, that is a fair assessment.
Here are some roles in a sponsorship spectrum:
  1. Mentor: listens and provides advice.
  2. Strategizer: shares their knowledge about how to advance in the organization, and strategizes with the mentee to identify knowledge or skills gaps and develop tactics to advance.
  3. Connector: introduces the mentee to other influential professionals in their own network.
  4. Opportunity giver: gives or recommends mentee for a high visibility project or a promotion.
  5. Advocate: advocates for a mentee’s promotion and defends her when she is not able to do it herself.
The connector, opportunity giver, and advocate roles are more involved and riskier for the sponsor but are more impactful to advancing a woman’s career. Rather than a spectrum where leaders would “graduate” from one role to the next, planners of all career levels could (and should) take on more than one of these impactful roles to support the advancement of women, and women of colour in our profession. For example, even as a new professional, you can be a sponsor for planning students!
There are women-led organizations and other initiatives that aim to provide spaces and opportunities for these types of relationships to develop and ultimately help advance women in the industry.
To name a few, they are:  
Which of the impactful sponsorship roles could you step into with your current and new mentees? What would it take for you to do that?

Ibarra, Herminia. A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership. Harvard Business Review, August 19, 2019.
10 Big Issues Women Face at Work and What Leaders Can Do to Help. Catalyst, January 19, 2017.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Kristy Kilbourne and Reka Sivarajah

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