I was recently invited to join a panel discussion at the Asian Women Leadership Summit (AWLS) China in Shanghai on the topic ‘The Importance of Sponsorship and Mentorship’.

Together with the other esteemed panelists, we discussed the differences between Sponsorship and Mentorship programs, examples of how these programs are conducted in their companies, the views of their leaders on the importance of sponsorship and mentorship, and how their leaders make it a goal to find and promote women talent in their organizations with the ultimate goal to see more women in top leading positions and eventually in the board rooms. I was really amazed by the programs that these companies have like 3M, Sodexo, International Finance Corporation, just to name a few. These committed companies undertake many ambitious initiatives like training, mentoring, creation of gender networks and raising awareness about gender-related issues to further the goal of gender balance and advancement of women at the workplace. Specific budgets are set aside annually for these programs which shows the level of commitment these companies have towards diversity and gender balance.

Some industries are still not getting it

I, on the other hand, was sharing the other perspective of companies that do not have Sponsorship and Mentorship programs. If you do a search in Google for list of companies that offer formal Sponsorship and Mentorship programs, you will find a list of companies from industries such as finance, healthcare, life sciences, tech, that have formal programs for women employees. However, there are still many industries missing in the list.

From my personal view, such programs should be part of companies’ strategies and visions. McKinsey’s report states that companies that have built gender diversity successfully at the leadership level are twice as likely to place gender diversity among the top three priorities on their strategic agenda, to have strong support from the CEO and management, and to integrate gender diversity at all levels of the organization. More and more companies are putting decarbonization and digitization at the top of their agenda and such initiatives are supported by heavy budgets annually. Companies that fail to adopt these transformations will be left behind and eventually extinct based on the simple fact that they did not adopt the newest trend and chose to be ignorant. The same applies to companies that do not yet adopt the trend to find and promote more women in leadership positions and set it as part of their target and strategy. There is already a gap among the industries on sponsorship and mentorship programs and this will lead to an even bigger gap among industries in terms of number of women in leadership positions and women in board rooms.

Many studies including one from DDI, a human resources consulting firm, have shown that companies that perform best financially have the greatest numbers of women in leadership roles. Another article from McKinsey gave an example of Sodexo’s determination to foster diversity and gender equality. Despite such advantages, most companies don’t come close to achieving an equally balanced team of leaders that would help them capitalize on all of their talent. Companies that do not take these steps hold themselves back from being a better business. Women leaders are highly educated, engaged and experienced, and their perspective is absent when they are missing from the table. Businesses lose by leaving them out.

The negative cycle in companies

Companies that do not to have sponsorship and mentorship programs for women argue that they do not have enough women employees in the organization and have a restricted talent pool to choose from. The way I see it, every company has to start somewhere, and if they don’t, they will be staying in the same negative cycle that starts with lacking women talent.

The same cycle applies in the hiring process. More and more women are looking to work in corporations and organizations that have sponsorship and mentorship programs that promote women talent and women into leadership positions. This is one way to make companies more attractive to the female gender especially for companies that are more male-dominated. On the other hand, to have a successful program that works, they have to be well implemented in their companies which means that the programs need to have clear follow-up processes in place, they are assessed on a regular basis, and their effectiveness are being evaluated at various levels of the organization. There is no doubt that it takes time and persistence for these programs to effect tangible and sustainable results. But here’s the thing, it’s a lot easier to built the status quo than it is to innovate for the future, yet companies choose to innovate in order to survive. Gender balance in this case should not be seen less than equal to innovation.

At the AWLS, we also discussed if companies should implement quotas for women in executive roles. This is a controversial topic which generally triggers a good and probably heated debate but absolutely necessary. According to a publication from The Telegraph, during an interview with Christine Lagarde and Sheryl Sandberg in 2014 at the World Economic Forum in Davos , this controversial system was described as “unfortunate but necessary”. However, when the quota system was introduced, Christine Lagarde was strongly against it but it was not long after that she realized from her own personal experience that unless there are at least targets if not quotas, there was no way companies were going to take the right steps to have a significant number of females as partners in the big international law firm that she was working for at the time.

I absolutely agree with the statement above because in order to have more female role models at top leading positions, this is a necessary step before we reach gender equality and gender diversity at the workplace.

I will end here with her quote from 2014:

“I’m pro-quotas, I’m pro targets, and I think we should be made accountable in order to reach those numbers.”