And Now a Word About Our Sponsors

A new study shows that nearly three-quarters of executives choose protégés that mirror their own race and gender. In the wake of #MeToo, how can implicit bias training break a dangerous cycle? 

Of all the career strategies designed to land you in the C-suite, finding a sponsor who will introduce you to senior leaders, provide tactical career guidance and advocate for promotions is one of the most valuable. It’s also one of the hardest to get right.

The sponsor-protégé relationship is professional, but it is also, in a sense, very personal. Protégé literally means “one who is protected.”  We take a protégé under our wing. We have their back. We stand in their corner, sticking our necks out for them. With that kind of emotional commitment at stake, it’s not surprising that people in powerful leadership roles tend to sponsor protégés who remind them of themselves.

Overwhelmingly so: According to the Center for Talent Innovation(CTI), an organization that focuses on advancing women and minorities, 71% of sponsors choose protégés who are of the same gender or race. In past studies, CTI has found that 58% of women and 54% of men choose protégés because they “make me feel comfortable.”

Like Me Bias

Our brains are wired to seek safety, and conscious or unconscious biases drive us to find people who seem just like us. The “like me” bias can apply across age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status and nationality. Many of us rarely step outside of our bubbles. We go out of our way to help people who seem like they are part of our tribe, whether by writing a letter of recommendation for our neighbor’s daughter or supporting a struggling family member. Our biases don’t end there, of course. Our race and gender implicit biases are pervasive, whether we are aware of them or not.

This instinct seems to override the best of intentions, especially when we sense risk or fear exposure. Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, the number of male managers who are  uncomfortablementoring women has more than tripled, according to one study. Almost half of the male managers surveyed said they now felt uneasy working or socializing with female colleagues.

Opportunities to interact with senior leaders are critical for gaining visibility. When leadership at a company is overwhelmingly white and male, and those executives choose mini-me protégés, the opportunity for women and people of color to get access narrows. Women reportfewer interactions with senior leaders than men do. Women of color are much more likely to say they never interact with senior leaders, either formally or informally. How do you become a leader if you never have access to them?

Promoting diverse sponsor-protégé relationships can help break this cycle.

Seek difference intentionally

Just as inclusion is a source of competitive advantage to companies, it’s also key to your own personal success at work. Investing in people with different backgrounds can lead to more creative and productive brainstorming. Championing diversity on your team will also help you to be a more effective, inclusive leader.

How to get started

  • Check your bias.
  • Take a look at the people who surround you at work and in your community. Do they share the same gender, racial or ethnic background? Dig a little further: If you don’t think you are prone to implicit bias, test yourself using assessments developed by scientists.
  • Look for perspectives from people who don’t mirror your own background. If you really want to broaden your scope of knowledge, look for someone who can fill in your knowledge gaps. You may find that people outside of your circle can teach you new skills or bring critical awareness about your company’s changing global market.
  • Work with a professional implicit bias trainer to develop a plan to counteract the “like me” bias. Expand your network, even if that means experiencing some social awkwardness. Attend affinity group meetings, company volunteer or networking events and purposefully introduce yourself to people with whom you don’t typically interact.
  • If you are in the position to sponsor a protégé, consider candidates from outside of your typical groups. Try to find diversity in race, gender, language of origin, religion and sexual orientation.

Identifying your own biases and making the unconscious, conscious, can help you to understand where your blind spots are. Taking specific action to overcome those blind spots can help you find the right sponsor-protégé relationship, one that will benefit both of you.

Laura Wenner is a writer and executive communications consultant who helps companies share insights on diversity and inclusion, women’s leadership and corporate social responsibility. Learn more at