How Women Can Find – and Create – Equity in the Workplace


I recently sat down with Built In to discuss its report Creating Equity For Women At Work about the importance of mentorship and sponsorship for women’s equitable advancement. We also spoke about the myth of meritocracy, navigating office politics and new research showing how women who stand tall often get cut down.

I believe women can not only stay tall but grow taller if they work together with each other and have great male allies.

What follows is our Q&A:

Built In Q: What is the importance of sponsorship and mentorship for women?

Julie Kantor: I’ll start with one really important data point. According to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, women on average have three times as many mentors as men — but men have twice as many sponsors. Mentors are extremely important to help guide you with skills, knowledge and experience. But sponsors champion people for opportunities, promotions, raises and stretch assignments. A sponsor might help you land your next client which is an imperative for anyone in business development.

We like to say a mentor is someone who speaks with you, while a sponsor is someone who speaks about you behind closed doors, championing you to others. I think it’s also important to state that an ally speaks UP for you or against a perceived injustice. As leaders, we need to flex all three and help others grow around us. Carla Harris of Morgan Stanley said: “the hiring room is not a meritocracy.” There is always someone in those decision-making roles who is championing (aka sponsoring) their top candidates.

So, for both women and minority executives to rise, we need to build sponsoring relationships as well as mentoring relationships. Research shows that people tend to mentor and sponsor in their own likeness as a default because it is what we know, experience and are comfortable doing. So, the challenge I often give to clients, especially IT departments, is to think about whom you will help in 2023 – 2024. By all means, make sure as a leader that you are building your living leadership legacy by mentoring and sponsoring people who you are different from you across multiple characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity, career level, socio-economic).

Built In Q: Your perspective is that mentorship and sponsorship can help people navigate office politics. How so? 

JK: At ISG right now, I'm doing a lot of work with companies that have just been acquired, especially in healthcare. I see a lot of people who are scared and trying to figure out: How do I deal with these new corporate politics and procedures? Will I still be valued? When a company goes through an M&A, many people start brushing up their resumes because they think they won’t be able to thrive in the politics of the new environment.

For a lot of us, the workplace can feel like a big ocean. You can be swimming along and smack into a proverbial jellyfish. Hopefully, it’s not a great white shark, but that can happen, too. That is when you need to have peer mentors or sponsors or, as one of my colleagues would say, “air cover.” You need to be able to turn to people who understand the political nuances of the company and understand not only how to survive but to thrive. It’s about building one-on-one, mutually beneficial relationships with people you can learn from. It’s the only way to make sure you don't smack into those jellyfish and, if you do, that you don’t fall into a valley of despair.

Built In Q: Can you talk about the power of diversity of thought?

JK: I’ve been thinking a lot about Dr. Edward De Bono’s framework The Six Thinking Hats method, which demonstrates the importance of building teams of thinkers who bring diverse perspectives to the table. His framework is centered on the analogy of wearing different hats.

For instance, he’s identified what he calls the red hat, which stands for passion. Think about how important passion is for any decision you make. You have the white hat — that’s about looking at the data and facts to inform your decisions. Then there’s the yellow hat, which is about positivity, as in: Let’s identify all the ways this is a good idea? The black hat balances that out: It’s about being aware of risks, taking precautions and understanding where there might be challenges. That’s more about having a devil’s advocate on your team. And the green hat is about creativity. The blue hat (think policing) leads the process, enforces and keeps the team on task.

When we bring diverse teams together, it means we are able to put on more of those hats and come up with innovations that impact the company’s bottom line. But we've lost a lot of that decision-making diversity, so we’re not coming together around a shared purpose. Or, if we do come together, the loudest voice rules.

That’s when people don't feel a sense of inclusion and belonging. By contrast, when we respect each other for the diverse hats we wear, we see each other for our capabilities and results. We celebrate each other for the value we deliver as diverse thinkers. We need to plug in and rebuild that trust. We need to rebuild that sense of inclusion and belonging.

Built In Q: Do you see women celebrating each other?

JK: As women and as executives, we always have an opportunity to lift each other up or cut each other down. When I was building an initiative called Million Women Mentors, whose mission was to get more women into science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) careers, so many of my counterparts in corporate America were saying that other women weren't helping them. There was competition to be the one or two women who would make it to the top and onto boards.

One of the women I worked with at the Women’s Business Collaborative said: If we could do just one thing, I’d like it to be for women to stop competing with each other and start lifting each other up.  

Now, I'm not letting men off the hook in terms of allyship — we need men to come along with us — but I am saying that the sisterhood is here for us to build, and I have seen it and absolutely believe in that sisterhood. The old boy’s network was essentially built on sponsorship. We can co-sponsor each other and people who do not remind us of ourselves, too.

Built In Q: That reminds me of the “poppy” study. Can you explain that research? 

JK: It’s a 2023 study called The Tallest Poppy led by Dr. Rumeet Billan and Women of Influence+. In the survey, 90% of the most competent, top-performing women reported feeling penalized or marginalized for their success. The more accomplished a woman is, the more likely she is to experience aggression both from people in senior positions and peers.

Women who participated in the survey felt they were not invited to the party, so to speak. They're not invited to key meetings or to the gold outing. As a result, a lot of rockstar women are leaving the workplace. They're seeking new opportunities like entrepreneurship because they're feeling undervalued and undermined. And they’re just stressed out and fed up. Fifty-four million people left their jobs during COVID.

Remember, people don’t leave jobs, they leave leaders. We need to get back to the basics for men and women alike – we all need to feel we are included; we all need to feel a sense of belonging.

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