What's holding women in PR back from seeking sponsors?

Panelists at the PRWeek Hall of Femme discussed why women are less likely to seek sponsors at agencies than men, and why it's important that they do.

Photo credit: Ketchum; L-R: Moderator Maia Samuel, Nick Colucci, Hilary McKean, Joanne Trout
Photo credit: Ketchum; L-R: Moderator Maia Samuel, Nick Colucci, Hilary McKean, Joanne Trout

NEW YORK: Mentorship and sponsorship are vital in the agency world, but women are half as likely as men to seek out patrons, according to panelists at the PRWeek Hall of Femme event on Wednesday.

There’s a difference between mentorship and sponsorship. A mentor is someone who "supports you out of the goodness of their heart," while a sponsor "sticks their neck out for you to advance your career [in return for] you making them look good within their organization," said panelist Joanne Trout, SVP of worldwide communications at Omnicom Group.

However, women are less likely to seek sponsors than men, said Trout, citing a Harvard Business Review study.

"Women do put their heads down and feel like the work should speak for itself," she said. "To feel like they have to ask for help and have that connection and have someone else put their name on the table, women have a harder time with that. I do."

Another panelist, Publicis Health chairman Nick Colucci, said men are "much more overtly ambitious in raising their hands for anything," such as applying for jobs.

"Speaking to men [in senior positions], I say if you have ideas and thoughts on people capable of doing the job, knock on their door and ask them why they aren’t applying for the position that is open," suggested Colucci, who was named 2018 Honorable Mentor by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association.

Panelist Hilary McKean, partner and regional president at Ketchum, North America, said she worries about how her daughter in college will rise in her career.

"I think about how is she going to get to the next level in an environment in which many women find it difficult to say they are ready for the next level, raise their hand, and say ‘choose me,’ instead of waiting to be chosen based on the quality of your work, which is the assumption," said McKean.

The #MeToo movement could hold back some women from seeking male sponsors, according to panelists. "[Women might think] if you ask someone to be a sponsor, do you owe them something?" said McKean. "Is there an exchange of power in that overtness of sponsorship that feels uncomfortable in this environment, especially if it is a woman asking a man in a senior leadership position?"

Women must do more than just raise their hands and say, "Sponsor me." They should make sure their work is visible and build a relationship with a potential sponsor, the panelists advised. Although formalized mentoring or sponsorship programs are important within agencies, real mentorship or sponsorship comes from creating friendships, said McKean.

"It is a human connection," she said. "People who seek me out at Ketchum, once I get to know them more – their aspirations, dreams, how they were raised, why they went to college, why they got into it – whether it is fair or not fair, I care about them as a human being and want to help them."

Trout added that more women should seek sponsors because it will help with gender parity at senior levels in the agency world.

"Women are trying to balance their work-life and don’t want to be at the C-suite," she said, noting that many executive women opt out of advancing further at Omnicom in their mid-30s due to lack of balance. "Sponsors and support systems [will help them advance]."

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