Women in leadership – why championing makes all the difference

26 March 2015

Women in leadership – why championing makes all the difference

Dr Shaheena Janjuha Jivraj reports on the findings of a major piece of research into the effects of championing.

Faculty viewpoint: 
Dr Shaheena Janjuha Jivraj


We have just completed a major piece of research on Women in Leadership in the Commonwealth. We spoke to 60 female leaders across 53 countries. Across all the women there was a consistent theme that helped their leadership development: at some point early on in their careers, they met a significant individual, someone who believed in them, someone who saw their potential and managed to persuade them that they could achieve what they never thought possible. I call that championing. Championing is distinctive from mentoring or sponsoring and can make all the difference in how far up the leadership ladder women get.

How is championing different? Sponsorship was hailed as the big breakthrough to help spot talent and promote women into leadership roles. Over time however, more men than women have benefitted from sponsorship. The reason for this lies in the nature of the relationships men and women typically engage in. For a junior woman to be sponsored she needs to have a clear idea of her goals and ambitions and also recognise what value she can bring to the senior leader. All of these assumptions rely on younger women having the confidence to recognise their potential and to express it through clearly articulated career goals. In essence, sponsorship is a very transactional relationship, and we know women are less likely to engage in these types of relationships, so once again the odds seem stacked against them.

This is why championship emerges as an indispensable resource for women. All of the senior women and men we spoke to emphasised the importance of spotting and investing in human talent. Senior leaders are motivated to help junior staff realise their potential, building the talent pipeline not only for their organisations but also other corporates they are aligned with. At the heart of this relationship, championing is altruistic and efficient as it creates opportunities to build longer relationships that survive beyond companies.

We have found culture is not a barrier; in countries with a strong division of gender there are inspirational stories of senior men championing women, getting women to challenge assumptions about themselves, advocating female talent for senior roles and challenging many of the behaviours from unconscious bias that hold women back.

As more women step into leadership roles, visibility still remains a challenge and more attention needs to be focused on supporting the female talent pipeline. The myth that women pull up the ladder after them and will not support other women is still prevalent, although our evidence suggests female senior leaders today recognise the value ascribed to being a great champion far outweighs the benefit of being the lone voice. Championing is undoubtedly the next big resource for women to step into leadership.

Hear Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, speak at the 2015 International Alumni Forum, taking place at our Greenlands campus from 4- 6 June. A special event, exclusive to Henley alumni.

Contact Image

Contact Us

If you have any questions, please contact the Alumni & Development Team by email at alumni@henley.ac.uk or by phone on +44 (0)1491 418 843.