This Is the No. 1 Thing Holding Women Back on Wall Street

November 1, 2016, 6:59 PM UTC

What drives Wall Street? Money, certainly, but also relationships.

In my work guiding high-level women on Wall Street, I regularly point to the correlation between opportunities for women in senior positions and women who have a sponsor—a powerful person within their own company who advocates on their behalf. Yet, my own research indicates that too few of the top women in finance have such an ally.

At this year’s RegentAtlantic Wall Street Women Forum, an annual invitation-only event for high-level women in finance, only 13% of attendees said they had a sponsor. I’ve posed that question to the Forum women for six consecutive years and 13% is an all-time low. Yes, these women have advanced quite far without the benefit of sponsors. But I question how they can forge further ahead in their careers without one—or better yet, two.

According to Harvard Business Review, women account for nearly half of management and professional roles in the American financial industry, yet just 12% of CEOs at large U.S. financial firms are women. I see a connection between the availability of sponsors and women’s ability to take that final step into the corner office.

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Sometimes I’ll work with a woman who tells me that she’s all set—she already has several mentors (though even that is rarer than you might think: 34% of our 2016 Forum attendees said they had neither a mentor nor a sponsor.) That’s my cue to explain that a sponsor plays a much different role than a mentor. A mentor can guide her in a current situation or provide professional introductions. A sponsor, on the other hand, is a powerful advocate who sees the protégé’s potential, opens doors for her and often pushes her to accomplish more than she could have imagined for herself. A sponsor is the person who constantly sings your praises behind closed doors.

As Citigroup’s Suni Harford put it during her Forum keynote: “Every major decision about your career will take place when you’re not in the room.”

Does my survey data indicate that women on Wall Street have reached a professional plateau? That’s possible, but I sense more optimism than ever and a willingness among women to take charge of their careers. It’s no secret that the mood on Wall Street cycles from optimism to pessimism and back again, and that can also impact how financial professionals feel about their careers.

My bellwether question for the women of Wall Street, which I have asked annually since 2010, is: “Given the changes on Wall Street since 2008, do you think there are more or fewer opportunities for women to advance to the most senior positions in our industry?” This past April, survey responses were resoundingly positive: 41% of the Forum community believe there are more opportunities available for Wall Street women today, while 29% say fewer and 28% say the same.

In my experience, not only are professional women more committed to helping each other today than ever before, but men are increasingly extending their support to women, too. Yet some women remain confused about how to get—or more accurately, earn—a sponsorship. I can suggest three primary ways for professional women to do just that:

Take risks to build professional relationships. Regularly reach out to individuals several levels above you (both women and men) who could be important career advocates or advisors. Ask to meet (coffee is easy, right?). You’ll be surprised at how often your request will be accepted. Use these meetings well: Be prepared and strategic. Ask smart questions about her career journey, obstacles she’s overcome and suggestions for people you should meet or projects you should consider undertaking. The person you meet for coffee may not become your sponsor, but could lead you to the person who does.

Earn your sponsor-to-be’s confidence and support. If you notice that a senior-level individual is advocating on your behalf, you have a responsibility to respond. If your potential sponsor names you to a committee, invites you to a key event—or even opens the door to a challenging new position—it benefits you greatly to say “yes.” If you believe the person is genuinely trying to help you, agree even if you feel under-qualified or unprepared. This senior-level individual has taken a risk by going to bat for you. Return the favor by doing the best job possible.

Nurture professional relationships and sponsorships. Never treat people “transactionally.” Don’t be the person who gives something, takes something and moves on. Key sponsors can remain in your professional life for years, even decades. Even if your sponsor leaves your firm or retires, remain in touch. Your sponsor is invested in your continued success. Sponsors could recruit you to their new firm, name you to an important industry committee or even nominate you for jobs they turn down. Better yet, sponsors can continue to share with you their wise counsel—something that’s easy to forget we need from our more experienced colleagues.

I consistently see a direct relationship between having a sponsor and finding greater career success. When you know someone “has your back,” you tend to be more confident, more optimistic, more willing to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. Don’t want to toot your own horn? Your sponsor can do that for you. If more Wall Street women dedicate themselves to developing strong sponsor relationships, I’m confident that women’s opportunities to earn “seats at the table” on Wall Street will skyrocket even higher.

Jane Newton is a managing partner and wealth advisor at RegentAtlantic and founder of the Wall Street Women Forum.


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