A common claim heard across industries is that professional development programs targeted to women offer women an unfair advantage. Unfair advantage assumes that companies are a level playing field where career advancement is a fair and open contest at each point of promotion. In other words, hard work, talent, education and individual attributes are what moves individuals ahead.
Another sentiment around career development programs is that they should be based solely off merit. Merit is a simple word that often implies that those who are ‘deserving’ have been promoted and progressed through a fair and transparent process that is open to everyone equally.
Progression is not this simple nor transparent and merit is often code for ‘male career path’. Arguments about merit can quietly paper over the original inequalities such as gender bias and give the impression that since formal barriers to participation in the workplace have been removed, everyone is now equal, when barriers to women’s progression still exist.
Indeed, many barriers remain at each stage of women’s careers. For instance, at the recruitment stage informal networks are more likely to advantage men. Rigid work practices and negotiating parental leave still impact women’s retention. While informal promotion practices, gender bias associated with women’s capability and unequal access to opportunities and skills necessary for promotion can act against women’s progression
Research demonstrates that whilst men and women access professional development programs; progression to leadership roles often depends on sponsorship – which women have a hard time accessing. Men are more likely to be offered promotions or assignments critical to advancement, for example – roles with high visibility, profit and loss responsibility or international assignments.
A sponsorship program targeted at emerging female leaders, and owned by senior management, is a necessary strategy to overcome biases and systemic barriers to women’s advancement. Progressive companies recognise that creating a transparent, more equitable system of sponsorship boosts the company’s ability to utilise its whole talent pool.
If organisations want to create genuine, equitable conditions for women, then they must be prepared to embed targeted solutions, such as sponsorship.
Sponsorship is not unfair, nor does it lead to unmeritorious progression opportunities. Sponsorship creates a culture of genuine inclusion that is needed for both men and women’s careers to thrive successfully and equally. This is why Laing O’Rourke and other organisations we have worked with over the years have successfully improved the retention and progression rate of women in their organisations by implementing our Cultivate Sponsorship program as recently profiled by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).