Women are trailblazing, making names for themselves in organizations all over the world- taking their career goals to the next level and claiming positions they have worked very hard for.

Despite this, many top positions within organizations are still held by men.

In recent decades, there have been calls for greater gender equality while enhancing the need to close the gender wage gap, and although tremendous strides have been made in this aspect, there is still a fundamental lack of women in leadership roles.

Statistically speaking, many women leaders are missing out.

Women outnumber men at almost every educational level and are about half the workforce in most countries, but: less than 20 percent are in senior management roles and progress has been slow and stagnant in the percentages of women reaching senior, top, and director-level positions in all countries in which benchmarking studies have been conducted, Zimbabwe included.

Besides shattering the mold, some women are still struggling to truly thrive- between work-life balance and office politics, there are numerous challenges women can face in the workplace.

Studies have outlined that companies with greater gender diversity, not just within their workforce but directly among senior leaders, are significantly more profitable than those without.

How then do we get more women in influential leadership roles?

Women must advocate for themselves if they want to move up the career ladder, but to succeed, they cannot go it alone.

All successful leaders need a network of champions-mentors and sponsors!

As noted in the book, Kick Some Glass: 10 Ways Women Succeed at Work on Their Own Terms, the people around you have the ability to either support or hinder your growth towards becoming the best leader you can be.

Almost every career woman has a mentor and in some instances one may have more than two mentors depending on the skills they are horning. But what is the essence of being over mentored without garnering influential leadership roles?

By the time they reach mid-career, most leaders can name a handful of advisers — bosses, coaches, colleagues, and friends — who helped them build confidence and develop needed skills. These advisers may be mentors and/or sponsors.

Both mentors and sponsors are critical to helping aspiring women leaders gain the perspective and connections they need to take on larger roles and advance their careers.

While both mentors and sponsors guide professional development, the Centre for Creative Leadership outlines the difference between a mentor and a sponsor and their relevance to advancing women’s careers.

RoleExperienced person at any levelSenior leader in the organization
GoalProvide guidance for career choices and decisionsUse influence to help employee obtain high-visibility assignments
Who drives the relationship?Both mentee and mentor; requires mentor to be responsive to the needs of the “mentee”The sponsor, who chooses to advocate for “sponsoree,” including behind closed doors with other leaders
ActionsHelps mentee determine paths to meet specific career goalsAdvocates for sponsoree’s advancement; champions her potential

Mentors provide guidance and support, whether around a specific need or for ongoing development. They listen to their mentees’ experiences and give constructive, direct, and honest feedback. CCL research established that people who are mentored: are better prepared for promotions and have higher success rates; Stay with their organizations longer; Feel more satisfied with their jobs and careers; and Rate higher on performance measures.

Mentees have greater impact in their organizations, are perceived as being more innovative and creative, show higher resilience to setbacks, and have stronger networks.

A mentor may also be a sponsor — but not necessarily. A sponsor is a specific type of mentor who goes above and beyond giving advice.

Sponsors are advocates who actively work to advance the career of their “sponsoree,” touting their accomplishments and potential, connecting them to others in their network, and recommending them for bigger roles. A sponsor pushes their “sponsoree” to take on challenging assignments and actively advances their career progression — including in off-the-record or closed-door meetings with other leaders.

Since the people who can advocate and create opportunities for others have some level of authority in an organization, they are likely upper-level leaders — people in power. And as the statistics above noted, in most organizations, that pool of influencers is still primarily male.

So while sponsors are important for men, they are critical for women. Yet men are more likely than women to have sponsors.

Mentoring at all career stages is important, but without sponsors who take that next step to advocate on their behalf, women — are at a disadvantage.

Borrowing from the CCL eagle’s eye view of the imbalance between men and women in terms of sponsorship, there are several reasons why women are under-promoted.

Like attracts like.

Since people naturally tend to gravitate to other people who are like them, male leaders may unconsciously be inclined to mentor and champion other men.

Similarly, women may not feel comfortable asking somebody several levels up — especially someone who doesn’t look like them — for advice or sponsorship. So even with no other factors at play, more men than women are sponsored, and leadership power structures remain largely unchanged.

Unconscious bias also plays a role.

Historically, images and ideals of leadership have been associated with stereotypically masculine qualities, and so women are less likely to be perceived as “leadership material,” as compared to men.

Research shows that women face a double-bind of being seen as either competent or likable-but not both.

Research has also found that women receive fewer stretch assignments and more vague, personal, and unhelpful feedback than men-preventing them from clear information about their performance that would push them to learn, grow, and improve.

Assumptions are problematic.

Often, women have the right qualifications and personal readiness but still aren’t considered for a promotion or critical assignments. More senior leaders simply make assumptions about women’s capabilities and interests, and then make decisions for them:

These assumptions may not be conscious or spoken, but they cause women to be overlooked for roles they would be great at.

“Queen Bee Syndrome” contributes, too.

The few women who have broken through the glass ceiling often still find themselves feeling stuck because of gender bias. While many women do sponsor, promote, or support the career advancement of other women, those who do not are sometimes called “queen bees” and are considered unsupportive of other women.

The research by CCL found that when women executives advocate for diversity and to promote other women, they receive lower competency and performance ratings. Men who sponsor or promote women are not similarly penalized — and may even be rewardedfor supporting diversity.

To mitigate power and bias, both men and women in positions of power should mentor and sponsor talent — regardless of gender. With awareness of the reality of power and bias in everyday actions, leaders should check their thinking, adjust as needed, and call out bias whenever they see it.

Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists is not enough, action is needed to level the playing field.

Yes! Gender equity in the workplace should not be pegged as merely a “women’s issue” and be left to women to address. Men in leadership roles are ideally positioned to strengthen the leadership pipeline in their organizations by helping to retain and advance talented women.

Some men think they wouldn’t be good at mentoring someone who’s different from them. Others have said they’re wary of perceptions or misinterpretation of their work relationships with women.

Together, we can help create a network of champions for talented women…because when more women lead, individuals thrive — and organizations are better able to embrace the challenges of the future.

Shamiso Yikoniko is a Strategic Communications Specialist currently working for the Zimbabwe Association of Church Related Hospitals as the Technical Advocacy and Communications.