Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Sponsorship: An equity and diversity game changer?

You don’t hear from me often. On this occasion I am very proud to announce my long awaited report Sponsorship: Creating Career Opportunities for Women in Higher Education is now available for free download. Co-written with Dr Jennifer Binns and produced in partnership with Universities Australia Executive Women, this sponsorship guide is a practical publication, based on research examining sponsorship practices and my decades of experience with mentoring and leadership programs within the higher education sector. 

At the report launch, Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, endorsed the. guide as a wonderful practical tool for higher education. Sponsorship, she noted, creates change. Sponsorship matters.

I agree. I believe sponsorship can be an equity and diversity game-changer.

Career spiral (C).PNG

There is no doubt that sponsorship can be career-making and career-breaking. The cumulative effect of sponsorship was clear in the interviews. And my career spiral diagram which captures this process really resonates with people. It makes sense of their experience.

I don’t therefore conclude that all is well if you can just find one magical sponsor, far from it. I do however conclude that careers are not self-made. The role of others is critical in building career success. Some doors you just can’t open on your own.

In the Guide, which I hope you’ll read, I talk about the importance of naming sponsorship, a previously ‘under the radar’ informal practice – and making it visible and open to scrutiny. That starts to debunk the myth of self-made careers and makes visible who is and isn’t being sponsored. It comes as no surprise that sponsorship practices are extremely vulnerable to bias. Read all about that in Chapter 3.  

Sponsorship can be understood as a replicatory practice, where leaders (predominantly still male) ‘sponsor people like me with careers like mine’. This reduces the diversity of those most likely to succeed and maintains the narrow pathway to success. In HE this means anyone with caring responsibilities will struggle with the highly demanding normative linear career path. Currently, leaders seem most attuned to sponsoring those who can tread this path. 

I was also struck in the interviews with the focus on sponsorship at two major career steps – becoming established in one’s area of research (key to career progression for academics and researchers) and moving into leadership positions. Those with the most capacity to sponsor have a lot of power to choose who and how they sponsor. In effect their sponsorship plays a key role in determining who succeeds, and in turn who leads.

So, sponsorship could be a depressing story – lacking fairness and transparency, replicating the status quo, with biased leaders, contributing to career success and careers that do not develop. Current sponsorship practices can undermine institutional goals for increased equity, diversity and inclusion. 

On the other hand there is so much that can be done to change and improve sponsorship practices. So many possibilities for small and big wins in creating change. When I view it with my culture change hat on I can see that sponsorship has the potential to sit at the heart of a culture change process.

Chapter 5 is full of ideas and examples of how to create change. Leaders are central to this change effort and there is much that an individual leader can do immediately. Of course what is preferable is a whole of unit/school/department/institution approach. 

There are also tips for those who are currently lacking sponsorship. Individuals can be proactive on their own behalf in building mentoring and sponsorship community. The earlier in their careers that people develop sponsorship savvy the better. 

And what else makes me optimistic? People get it. It has been so satisfying working with this material over the last few years, and witnessing the ‘aha’ moments.

Leaders who recognise the need to be more reflective about their sponsorship practices.

Mentors who recall the importance of sponsorship in their own careers and make time to identify sponsorship needs for people in their teams.

Early career researchers who realise for the first time what is happening around them.

Women who realise they are missing out and work out strategies to address this.

Sometimes when we wish to create change, it is hard to find a way in that is accessible, that opens up conversations. This is a way in. And if we can improve sponsorship practices - to be more inclusive of a diversity of people and to support people to successfully travel a variety of paths - ultimately we will change who succeeds and who leads. Institutional profiles will change, as will knowledge creation and innovation. That’s worth working towards.  

If you’d like me to help you, I’d be delighted.