Case Study:

How BlackRock used sponsorship to boost gender equality

Thursday 14 March 2019
Pairing women with senior leaders is just one ingredient of a successful sponsorship scheme
group of women looking at a laptop

The financial industry is notorious for its gender inequality. Men are paid on average 22% more than women in the finance and insurance sector, while female professionals are underrepresented in senior roles.

BlackRock has always been slightly different than the rest, however. Influential female leaders Susan Wagner and Barbara Novick were among the eight founders that established the global investment company and in 2009, when the company purchased Barclays Global Investors (BGI) a formal plan was developed to address gender equality across the business.

BlackRock hired a diversity lead

Soon after the acquisition, BlackRock appointed BGI’s head of corporate social responsibility Kara Helander as its diversity lead. Helander found that “there were subtle ways women weren’t getting the information or opportunities that they needed to progress in their careers.”

In response, senior women from both BlackRock and BGI joined forces and expanded a Women’s Initiative Network (WINS) that was first started by Barclays to attract and retain talented female employees. In 2011, the company also launched the Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF), a year-long sponsorship programme that prepares senior women for director-level roles by encouraging others to publicly advocate for them.

Read more: How personal sponsorship could progress your career

BlackRock leaders got involved

BlackRock matched each participant with an executive sponsor who is a member of the Global Executive Committee (GEC), the financiers’ highest-level decision-making body. The idea was backed by the leadership team, who also saw it as an opportunity to learn about the latest innovations in the organisation.

Helander – now at The Carlyle Group – told the CMI’s Blueprint for Balance report: “When we went to the GEC with this idea, they said yes right away. We paired each woman on the WLF programme with an executive from a different line of business. We wanted there to be synergy, so not only was the female participant learning from the executive, but the GEC member was also gaining market insights and knowledge from the participant they were sponsoring.”

Training was provided for both the sponsor and the participant to ensure both parties were able to take full advantage of the scheme, and make both feel accountable for making the sponsorship successful.

The sponsorship scheme was given a public platform

In fact, executive sponsors present their sponsored colleagues to the GEC, sharing their strengths and raising their visibility with the leadership team. “We trained them both in what their respective roles were, how to structure sponsoring sessions, set expectations and created the groundwork to help them get the most out of the relationship,” revealed Helander.

Men became agents of change

The results of the executive sponsorship programme have been striking – more than 80% of participants have moved into new or expanded roles. This includes several women promoted to key governance bodies for BlackRock, including the GEC and regional executive committees.

However, the scheme has also benefited the largely male leadership team. The widespread inclusion of men as mentors, public speakers and sponsors in the WIN, the WLF and executive sponsorship programmes was a masterstroke, opening the eyes of many men to the very real challenges women are facing at work.

For example, many men reported ‘lightbulb’ moments of recognising unintentionally biased behaviour and began to more carefully manage team dynamics and career advancement opportunities.

“Our mostly male sponsors have emerged far more empathetic and aware of what it’s like to be in the seat of the person they’ve been sponsoring, understanding what it’s like to be a 35-year-old female,” says Jonathan McBride, BlackRock’s global head of diversity & inclusion, Helander successor. “It’s advancing their careers, too. We’ve even had executives start to ask to chair the women’s network after their sponsorship experience.”

Read more: How other companies created a great sponsorship scheme

More information on how to promote gender equality at work is available in the Blueprint for Balance report

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