Sandberg, Summers and Sponsorship

nfMCtImCouple of things happening this week with women in the work world.

First, there’s this short survey that describes five vocations that were traditionally male-dominated but have, over time, flipped such that they have now become the majority domain of women. Want to guess the vocations? Go ahead. I’ll share the list at the bottom of the post.

And then there’s Sheryl Sandberg. You might have seen her on the news. Sandberg is the current COO of facebook, but she has an extensive and elite corporate history, having served as the chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury Secretary and as a V.P. at google. In addition, Sandberg holds an M.B.A. from this little east coast college called Harvard.

Sandberg recently published a book called Lean In. And while I haven’t read it yet (it’s on order), it’s got some buzz. Like a swarm of bees kind of buzz.

On one hand, you have folks who view Lean In as a prophetic call for women’s empowerment in the workplace. Building on Sandberg’s TED talk (with its 2 million views, thank you very much), Lean In calls women to take risks, chase their goals and, yes, lean in to challenges. Here’s a blurb from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great:

“Sheryl Sandberg has done a tremendous service with this work. It offers a vital and sharp message, for women and men. We need great leaders in key seats spread throughout all sectors of society, and we simply cannot afford to lose 50 percent of the smartest, most capable people from competing for those seats. Provocative, practical, and inspired!”

On the other hand, you have folks who take issue with Lean In, primarily basing their objections around Sandberg’s life situation. How, they wonder, can someone who lives in such affluence call for a gender revolution, when so many women have nowhere near the options that she does? In an editorial on cnn.com, Susan Faludi writes this:

“You can’t change the world for women by simply inserting female faces at the top of an unchanged system of social and economic power. ‘You can’t,’ to quote (Charlotte) Bunch again, ‘just add women and stir.'”

In any event, reading some of the Lean In articles, I was struck by one particular aspect of her story, and that is that she was championed. Sponsored. Vouched for in her career. Simply put, Sheryl Sandberg benefited from the advocacy of some of the men around her.

Specifically, she was sponsored by a guy named Lawrence Summers. Summers served as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, and while I don’t know anything about the nature of their relationship or Summers’ motivation, I do know this:

Sponsorship is a key strategy for overcoming male privilege.

In his book Connecting, Leadership Professor Bobby Clinton defines sponsorship this way:

“A relational process in which a mentor having credibility and positional or spiritual authority within an organization or network relates to a mentoree not having those resources so as to enable development of the mentoree and the mentoree’s influence in the organization.”

I dare say that Sheryl Sandberg would not be in a place to write her book without Summers and his intentionally opened doors. Sponsorship works.

To use my response rubric, sponsorship is one way that men can commit to use their privilege to empower women around them. In the end, I don’t mean to say that sponsorship will fully solve the problem of male privilege, but I do mean to say that it’s a start.

If we’re ever going to find a more widespread vocational parity, we have to start somewhere.

Here’s the list: pharmacists, accountants, physician assistants, photographers and bartenders. How’d you score?!?

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3 responses to “Sandberg, Summers and Sponsorship”

  1. Kimberly MacNeill says :

    Sponsorship. Championed. Thank you Mitch and Mike Harrison, and Steve Davidison. No one else would have taken the risk. And to Steve – for living out that risk for years!

  2. Caroline Reid says :

    And thereby hangs a challenge for Christian women: managing a relationship with a man so as to be completely without reproach. It’s not simply the risks involved, but the appearances which others interpret, often incorrectly. It’s not that a relationship between a man and a woman is automatically about sex and/or romantic involvement, but we’d be foolish not to recognize and deal with this kind of risk.
    A solution? Sponsorship by another woman who has “gone ahead” on the particular road one is travelling. Sponsorship by a man would tend to reinforce the notions of ‘man as holder of the keys to success’.
    I’ve always sought women sponsors, even within the church. And now it’s my turn to be the sponsor for younger women.

  3. rdixon1365 says :

    Thanks Caroline and Kimberly! Yes to sponsorship from both genders, in and out of the church. No doubt. To be sure, women sponsors would provide many things that male sponsors could not. That said, while we still live in a cultural context that favors men, we need men to move to the side and proactively sponsor women into leadership roles if we’re ever going to see equality.

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