Come In and Make Yourself Uncomfortable

Personal relationships are at the heart of every sponsorship experience. The better a sponsor knows, trusts, and respects the protégée, the more effective his advocacy and support will be. The more a protégée knows, trusts, and respects the sponsor, the more profound the experience will be. But building such relationships in a work setting can be tough. It takes time and a willingness to open up to another person, and it’s risky because the other person may disappoint you.

Of course, many people do make the effort, and form productive and successful sponsor-protégée relationships. The problem is that most of those relationships are between people of the same sex. Men tend to be more comfortable with other men, and women with other women. And since most influential sponsors are men, fewer women have sponsors, which puts them at a serious disadvantage.

Simply not enough powerful women are available to serve as sponsors for the scores of talented and ambitious women who need them. Besides, it is counterproductive to accept same-sex sponsorship as the norm. Aside from perpetuating the concentration of business, leadership, and power in the hands of men, it allows men to avoid their responsibility for eliminating gender imbalance in their organizations. We know that men become stronger advocates for women when they understand and appreciate the bias and discrimination women face. Opposite-sex sponsorship is necessary to educate and engage men in producing gender equality.

Gender Differences Inhibit Relationship Formation

Research shows that when it comes to forming relationships, we prefer to be with people who are like us in ways that matter to us, such as intelligence, class, family status, cultural background, hobbies, and schools attended, as well as age, race, and gender. The chance of forming a relationship with similar people is greater because we are drawn to and feel more at ease with them. With respect to gender, differences may attract romantically, but for workplace relationships, we prefer our own. We feel safer, more comfortable, and less guarded; we don’t have to worry as much about what we say, how we act, or how we will be perceived. We share experiences, perspectives, and challenges, so communication is easier. With this greater level of comfort, getting to know each other feels natural, we are willing to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and the relationship stands a better chance of taking off.

In contrast, it takes more effort to develop a connection with someone who is different from us—especially if the difference makes us uncomfortable. An opposite-sex relationship at work often makes the discomfort more pronounced for both women and men, especially when a power differential is also in play, as usually is the case with a senior male sponsor and a younger female protégée. Gender differences in communication or work style may create misunderstandings or unease, making it harder for men and women to appreciate each other’s talents and abilities. When career-advancing opportunities come up, individuals may favor those of the same sex and overlook or even avoid the other. A close work relationship between a man and a woman may arouse sexual tensions in one or both of them, generate office gossip, or spousal jealousy, or lead to misunderstandings or possibly missteps that could be perceived as provocation or harassment. These concerns may be overblown in the individuals’ minds, or they might not even be conscious or aware of them. Nonetheless, these factors can make men and women uncomfortable enough to prevent the formation of sponsor-protégée relationships.

Of course men and women routinely work together without these issues coming up. But sponsorship goes deeper than, say, a relationship between supervisor and associate, or between two lawyers on the same client team. A sponsoring relationship is more intense and the parties have more at risk.

Sponsors groom leaders. Their expectations are high because they invest a lot in the protégée. They have to feel confident that the protégée will perform and progress the way they expect when they put her in the limelight, give her major client responsibilities, or appoint her to a high-profile position. They believe that the protégée is or will one day be their equal—or may even surpass them. That degree of trust and confidence requires that the man and woman be comfortable with each other.

Increasing the Comfort Level in Male-Female Relationships

Once men and women get over their initial inhibitions, successful sponsor-protégée relationships can form readily. Here are some suggestions for how to increase the chances for that to happen:

  • Teach men and women to communicate. Have your firm teach men and women how to communicate better with each other, especially about topics that might make them uncomfortable. Help them understand how gender dynamics, including gender bias and power differences, affect male-female communication. Use videos, demonstrations, role plays, and other visual and interactive methods that illustrate common but awkward situations and how to handle them. Have people practice conversations on difficult topics, such as men giving women tough feedback, and women telling men about their accomplishments.
  • Put yourself in social situations where you feel uncomfortable. At your next networking event, instead of talking with someone you already know, approach a stranger—someone of a different gender, race, status, age, or other characteristic—and introduce yourself. Don’t think about them as a possible business contact, but as someone you want to get to know. Be curious and learn what you can about them.
  • Practice empathy. Suspend assumptions about the other person. Approach them with an open mind. Try to see your potential relationship through their eyes. The other person may be just as uneasy as you are, though perhaps for different reasons. Rather than ignore it, talk about it.
  • Facilitate discussions about gender. Invite a small group of men and women to discuss gender-related issues. Women often discuss topics like gender bias and men’s and women’s communication styles at meetings and conferences without men present. Consequently, men do not fully appreciate the issues from women’s perspectives, and vice versa. Women feel more comfortable discussing these issues among themselves (as do men, if they discuss it at all), but both the learning and the impact are limited. Make the discussion informal, not a CLE program or formal event; but be sure to have it led by a skilled facilitator who can keep the conversation focused and make people feel safe when they speak honestly.
  • Get to know potential sponsors and protégées in your network. The likeliest source of sponsors and protégées is the network of people you interact with regularly at work. If prospective male sponsors or female protégées are in that group, pay attention to them. Study their work and work habits. Drop by for a chat, invite them for coffee, ask about their kids. Ample opportunities should be available to learn enough about them as lawyers and as people to determine whether sponsorship seems right. If it does, broaching the subject will feel effortless.
  • Expand beyond your immediate network. If no apparent sponsor or protégée candidate is in your immediate network, expand your horizons. Look for possibilities in other parts of the firm. Let colleagues know you are interested in finding a male sponsor or a female protégée. Ask them for suggestions and introductions. When a mutual colleague introduces you, it enhances your credibility; the other person may be flattered by your interest and want to meet you.
  • Work together on non-work projects. Look for activities and organizations that you and a potential sponsor or protégée both participate or are interested in, such as specialty bar associations, nonprofit or community organizations, the symphony board, an alumni association, or a political campaign. Working together for a common cause will foster relationship development.
  • Include men in women’s initiatives. If your firm has a women’s initiative that is for women only, start including men in some of your events, programs and meetings. Some activities should remain women-only, but it is also important for women to get to know—and be known by—men who (now or in the future) can get them higher compensation, introduce them to key contacts, and send them business. While the number of powerful women in law and business is growing, men currently dominate the top ranks of virtually all organizations, making them the most advantageous sponsors. Ambitious men routinely form bonds with those powerful men; women should have every possible opportunity to do the same.


Law firms say they want more women leaders and rainmakers. For this to happen, more powerful men will have to actively support, advocate for and sponsor more women. The first step is to help men and women face and move beyond their initial discomfort and start to build meaningful relationships. Only then will opposite-sex sponsorship become the norm, not the exception.

About the Author

Ida O. Abbott is legal talent consultant, the founder of Ida Abbott Consulting LLC, and the author of Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter @IdaOAbbott.

Send this to a friend