A new study shows that overwhelmingly, executives tend to sponsor people who look exactly like themselves.
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By Ellen McGirt
Updated: January 10, 2019 2:24 PM ET

New research from the nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation shows what we all suspected was true: Most executives choose to nurture talent who look like themselves in terms of race and gender, or as Bloomberg cheekily states, they pick Mini-Me.”

The numbers are significant. About 71% of executives have proteges of the same gender and race, and the vast majority reported their mentees had the same interests, management style, or skills. The survey comes from a poll of more than 3,200 white-collar executives.

It’s almost as if sponsors pick people who make them feel young again.

“This study reaffirms what we have seen play out again and again—white men overwhelmingly get the top jobs and the ‘hot assignments,’ because of their networks and sponsors,” says Ruchika Tulshyan, inclusion consultant, and author of The Diversity Advantage, Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace.

When sponsors choose proteges like themselves, it disproportionately harms women of color across the pipeline who are the least likely to be in leadership roles, she says.

There is, however, a systemic fix.

“Employers must match senior leaders with high potential employees from underrepresented backgrounds,” Tulshyan says. “There must be clear goals and accountability.” And sponsors must do the hard work of understanding why people are underrepresented in the first place. “Male leaders must understand why ‘leaning in’ doesn’t work for women, and white leaders must learn what are the challenges that people of color face at work.”

For Katrina Jones, Director, Global Diversity & Inclusion at Twitch, executives who want (or are being compelled) to do better should follow a three-step journey: Do the work, listen and learn, then amplify and support. You’re going to feel uncomfortable at times, but don’t let that stop you, she says. “Be honest about what you don’t know, be clear about what your intention is, and ask folks what you can do to make things better.”

In addition to studying the dynamics of white supremacy in the U.S. and beyond, Jones suggests taking inventory of your own experiences, to root out the quiet biases you bring with you into the workplace. “How diverse was your hometown? The schools you attended? What were your family’s views about Black, Latinx, and Asian people? How often do you socialize with people of color?” she says.

If you’re a white executive who has sponsorship responsibility, start your listening journey by joining affinity groups for underrepresented talent in your workplace. If you don’t, you’re missing an opportunity to understand what your company is like for people who are different than you. But you’re also missing an opportunity to network. “It’s a way to start building professional and personal relationships with people of color that are rooted in psychological safety and trust,” she says.

Bottom line, you can break the cycle by breaking the cycle.

“Every time you’re in a room, make note of who isn’t represented there,” says Jones. And remember, it’s all about empathy, says Tulshyan. “Developing this empathy is key because what worked for the white male leader to get ahead will not necessarily work for the woman of color.”


More encouragement from the experts:

Katrina Jones: Get the real background. Learn about racism in America (or your specific nation or region), how it impacts communities and people of color, and solutions for restorative justice to end “our nation’s original sin.” Use the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to discover potential areas of unconscious bias.

Ruchika Tulshyan: Learn how well-designed corporate sponsorship programs can propel underestimated employees ahead, and how they can positively impact women’s careers. (Also, find her excellent book here.)



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