Skip to content Skip to navigation

Micro-sponsorship: A tool to combat micro-inequities

Mar 9 2016

Silicon Valley companies help solve the world’s most difficult and complex problems. Yet the puzzle of how to make high tech more inclusive and welcoming to diverse talent remains unsolved.

In technology, women are 3.7 percent of R&D Executives, less than 5 percent of Principal Engineers/Fellows, and 9 percent of executive officers. Women hold just 10 percent of board seats and 11 percent of leadership positions. And for women of color, the numbers are even lower. Executives, technology employees, managers, and students are asking us: “tell me what to do to change this.”

We were part of an experiment to shift the conversation. As the research partner of WT2 (Women Transforming Technology), the Clayman Institute recently led a session, Changing the Equation, with women in senior positions in technology and diversity & inclusion professionals.

Senior women agreed that the unwritten rules of work—the implicit or hidden norms that guide employee behavior and power—were most problematic for them. In many cases, the implicit rules override actual merit and performance. And for many successful women, the unwritten rules become even more challenging the higher they climb on the career ladder—as the band of behavior permissible for women becomes narrower, and the unwritten laws of work become more important.

A Proposed Solution

In navigating the unwritten laws of work, participants reported they greatly benefitted from—and personally appreciated—small acts of support and help along the way. We like to call these incremental acts micro-sponsorship.

 Micro-sponsorship is focused advice and advocacy in the moment. Micro-sponsorship can block micro-inequities –the ways in which individuals are either singled out or overlooked based on race, gender or other dimensions of difference.

Examples of micro-sponsorship:

  • Affirm a person’s competency. For example, acknowledge a woman leader’s key contribution to her peers in a meeting or public forum.
  • In team meetings, notice when women’s contributions are overlooked.  When someone else gets credit for her idea, add a comment such as “I’m glad you picked up on X’s idea” to bring back the credit to her.
  • When needed, offer critical and actionable feedback in the moment – both what is working well and what can be improved. Go to a private space, right after a meeting, to coach others to become more effective based on your insight on the unwritten rules. Likewise, let people know when they behave in a non-inclusive way.
  • In discussions of talent, ask clarifying questions when you suspect bias. Ask, for example, “What do we mean, exactly, when we say she is not strategic? How are we applying this criteria across all candidates?” or “you say she is aggressive, yet I don’t see her exhibiting different communication behaviors than her colleagues.”
  • Open the door to the right network for a colleague. Make sure events feel inclusive—this will create opportunities for women and underrepresented talent to break into the network of influence inside your company.
  • When you hear other discuss big assignments, bring up the name of top female talent as potential candidates.
  • Advocate in the moment for women’s expertise and contributions, tying their work to business outcomes.

When discussing why micro-sponsorship matters, one woman in the group pointed to the research on micro-aggressions. It’s the 10,0000 tiny cuts, or micro-aggressions, women experience daily that lead to their disenchantment and the organization’s loss.

The group was clear that micro-sponsorship does not address the underlying systemic hurdles facing women and diverse employees. However, if all employees across backgrounds find opportunities to act as a sponsor – in the moment – to support the voice of others, micro-shifts could lead to cultural change.Here’s micro-sponsorship from the top. 

Maybe starting with moments of sponsorship is just what we need to transform the culture of tech. Anyone in the industry – from CEOs to managers to individual contributors, can model these inclusive behaviors. The next time you hear “tell me what to do to change the culture”, point to micro-sponsorship behaviors.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.