Why Senior Women Executives Need a Sponsor Tree

by Mar 9, 2023

Actually all executives need a Sponsor Tree

Organisations shouldn’t rely on the personal discretionary effort of senior women executives to nurture female talent. They need systemic change – so  try creating a Sponsor Tree 


44% of people in the E.U. believe the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home according to Families Europe. During the global pandemic, we saw the unequal distribution of childcare and domestic responsibilities with women assuming 29% more of the workload than men, in research conducted in 16 countries.  This does not include the mental load that typically falls on women’s shoulders “the responsibility of anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.”


sponsor tree


Also sometimes referred to as “worry work” or “cognitive labour,” the mental load is about not just the physical tasks, but rather the overseeing of those tasks. It’s being the one in charge of having the never-ending list of to-do items constantly running in your head. Who remembers what needs to get done and when, delegating all the tasks to respective family members, and making sure they actually follow through.

Hours spent on domestic chores in Europe pre and post-COVID

  • Pre COVID: Women 15.8 hours …….Men  6.8 hours
  • During COVID: Women: 18.4 hours …… Men12.1 hours

Worth a read: Women and cognitive overload on the third shift – 3 Plus International

Office housework

As if this wasn’t enough, research shows that women bear the brunt of the emotional office labour, also known as “office housework” or “invisible work.” This is non-promotable work unrelated to their professional KPIs. Tasks include activities such as mentoring, coaching, social responsibility or well-being projects. Layer on responsibilities for office social activities and an increased chance that women managers will expend more time and energy on team wellness, and pastoral care. All of this leads to  high levels of burnout.

One additional responsibility which would not be in their KPIs and yet they are encouraged to undertake  is to nurture up-and-coming female talent. But with so few women at the top, the burden on this small number of senior female executives is immense. It is yet another layer of activity that contributes to overload and eventually burnout. Increasing numbers of women executives are considering leaving their organisations to become flight risks.

Organisations need to take note.

Men tend to be sponsored organically. They dominate meetings, they attend after work drinks dos and encounter execs in the gym, on the golf course and in the bathroom. It is much easy for them to catch the eye of a C-Suite leader.

Systemic Transformation – Sponsor Tree

Women tend not to have the same opportunities unless they create them themselves. At a time when the old trope of women are “over-mentored and under-sponsored” continues to circulate on social media, we have to find some practical low-energy, and time-effective solutions. CHROs and D,E and I leaders must stop asking already over-burdened senior women to take on even more discretionary work. They have to make sponsorship of under represented talent part of their systemic HR transformation programmes.  It doesn’t help that HR leaders are also burnt out. 

One method is the old-school pyramid selling model, of a Sponsor Tree, where each female executive takes on the responsibility for sponsoring only two protegées.In the absence of women in senior positions it can be executives of any gender; This works on the basis that there are more women in junior roles and so the numbers grow as we move down the hierarchy. A systemic approach also means that women don’t have to go out of their way to make themselves visible, a process which favours extroverts.

See the graphic below:

By only sponsoring two women each, for four levels, the structure has the possibility to reach 30 Protegées in a systemic and organised way.

The Sponsor Tree idea checks all the boxes, nurturing female talent, addressing gender balance  and inclusive. A systematic apporach saves energy (the personal kind.) It’s a win/win. So while your male colleagues are hitting the golf course  – work smart and still get more women at the table. This relies on an effective performance appraisal system and succession planning, rather than the afinity bias led lunch time comment “Tom seems sharp  – let’s send him to New York on the super x project” 

This work should be systemic, not the personal discretionary effort of already overloaded senior women. No wonder they think about leaving.

Download our eBook: Best Practices To Build A Successful Sponsorship Programme


If your organisation needs further support get in touch TODAY


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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