woman with scale

For Getting Ahead, One Size Does Not Fit All

Many assume that women lag behind men in career advancement because they don’t take full advantage of leadership development programs. But Catalyst research shows that women and men participate in formal development programs at the same rate. In fact, women enter them earlier and remain in them longer—yet still land fewer “hot jobs” (those that involve high-visibility projects and mission-critical roles) than men who’ve completed similar programs.

It’s clear that women aren’t getting ahead through leadership development programs alone. They may learn useful skills, such as the “PIE” method, which emphasizes performance, image, and exposure. PIE can be an impactful method because visibility is essential to landing hot jobs—but you also need an influential sponsor to recommend you.

Women have a harder time than men obtaining powerful sponsors—and women of color have a tougher time than white women do. Even women of color who do have sponsors still lag behind their white women counterparts in a number of areas, including:
• Overall satisfaction with the relationship
• Trust and mutual understanding
• Help navigating organizational politics
• Recommendations for assignments that increase contact with more senior managers

As one African American woman explained to Catalyst researchers, “The assignments and the sponsorship and the buzz around people who are considered brilliant and so forth—all of those sorts of factors—don’t seem to come together for women of color here the way they do for other groups.”

Given that women of color with influential mentors and sponsors are more committed to their companies and less likely to leave, organizations would be wise to create programs suited to their unique needs. Women, and particularly women of color, are a virtually untapped resource in many organizations, and more thoughtfully structured development programs could help address this. Instead of just focusing on PIE, for example, companies could combine that method with hands-on training in which participants are exposed directly to high-visibility assignments and senior leaders.

Both women of color and their organizations’ senior leaders—categories that are all too often mutually exclusive—could benefit from taking more risks. As one African American woman said, “I’ve been given opportunities to lead that were risky. One company said, ‘We want you to take over this job where the people who were peers of yours—all of them were white, and most of them were guys—are now going to [be] working for you.’”

Senior leaders should also be encouraged to take risks by sponsoring those who are different from them. We know that those doing the sponsoring are vulnerable, too: a protégé’s performance can reflect on his or her sponsor either positively or negatively.

Ultimately, for change to happen, both companies and women of color employees need to “just do it.” Organizations must be bold enough to give “unusual suspects” a chance to demonstrate their skills, and women must rise to the occasion by tackling high-risk assignments. When we bet on women—and when women bet on themselves—we have much more to gain than to lose. DW

Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.

Both women of color and senior leaders could benefit by taking more risks.


Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan, and more than 700 members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.


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