Design Thinking Applied to the Advancement of Women – Increasing Sponsorship

August 2, 2018
We have challenged ourselves to use Design Thinking as a way to bring fresh ideas to the goal of advancing women in the legal profession. In this post I look at some barriers to the advancement of women and, in particular, lack of sponsorship, and how Design Thinking can help. In upcoming posts, Andrea Alliston will look at the process of Design Thinking, and together we will share lessons learned so that you can use these techniques in your own organizations.

Advancing Women in Law

The advancement of women continues to be a pressing issue for the legal profession. It’s a frequent topic for lawyers, law firm leaders, general counsels, and other clients, but, it’s not an easy issue to address and, as always, there are a multitude of perspectives.

Is “work-life balance” the challenge for women lawyers given the demands of the job? Or are unconscious biases holding them back? Is it that women aren’t leaning in, sitting at the table and taking risks, or is it that no one is pulling women in or inviting them to the table? We’ve all done focus groups, engagement surveys and brainstorms and have looked at the issue through every possible lens.

The Power of Sponsorship

At Stikeman Elliott, in our own exploration, we’ve uncovered the powerful role that sponsorship plays in advancing women – and in particular, the role it plays in propelling women towards partnership. We know sponsorship applies in other environments as well.

Research tells us that being sponsored has a significant impact on an individual’s career advancement. The Centre for Talent Innovation found that sponsorship can increase an individual’s salary and stretch assignments (those extremely important projects that increase our skills, credibility and confidence), by up to 30%.[1] The same study found that compared to men, women are woefully under-sponsored as men are 46% more likely than women to have a sponsor. Another study in 2017 further highlights the power of sponsorship in our workplaces but found that very few women (and people of colour and Indigenous people) in Canada have sponsors.[2]

Sponsorship is different from mentorship. Mentors provide critical career advice and support – giving up their time and expertise to help their mentees integrate and “learn the ropes”. Sponsors, on the other hand, give their own political capital inside, and sometimes outside, an organization, to advance the career of a protégé. It’s about putting one’s own reputation and goodwill on the line to advance another. One can have several mentees, but can realistically only sponsor one or two protégés at any one time.

In her often cited book on the topic, Forget A Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett[3], identifies the key behaviours of sponsors and protégés as follows:

Click the image below to download a PDF copy.

Sponsorship Infographic

Increasing Sponsorship For Women Lawyers

It’s clear that getting more women lawyers sponsored by influential partners/firm leaders is a key piece in the advancement puzzle. But when it comes to increasing sponsorship for women so that they can reap the same benefits as their male counterparts, we had more questions than answers:

  • Practically speaking, how exactly do we increase sponsorship at our firm?
  • Can we develop a “program” or is sponsorship strictly an organic relationship that cannot be manufactured or simulated?
  • What are the sponsorship best practices and how do we teach and encourage those amongst busy partners and firm leaders?
  • How do we get people to sponsor those who are not like them?

We needed some creative solutions to these questions. Moreover, we wanted to look at the issue from three different perspectives:

  • women lawyers trying to advance;
  • potential sponsors looking for ways to support women they work with and
  • leaders invested in implementing organizational programs to advance women.

Rather than our “go-to” brainstorming and feedback sessions, we decided to put the challenging question of ‘how to increase sponsorship for women in the legal industry’ to a design thinking workshop. 

Design Thinking 101

Design Thinking is a “human-centered” problem solving technique that has become increasingly popular as we’ve sought more innovative solutions in our workplaces and communities.

Difficult problems fall into two buckets - those that we know how to solve, and those where there is no clear path forward. Solving these two different kinds of problems requires two different approaches. It turns out that the latter - the problems that we don't know how to solve - are particularly well suited to Design Thinking.[4] 

There are a few reasons why Design Thinking can work when traditional problem solving techniques cannot[5]:

  • Empathy for the user is at the core – participants put themselves in the shoes of the person experiencing the problem, not the problem solver
  • Creativity is key – the process requires integrative thinking and benefits from a diverse group of participants from different disciplines and backgrounds
  • It’s iterative – the creative process is not sequential, but overlapping which means that you keep working on the problem with ideas and solutions that grow, change and develop as you move through the process
  • Fast feedback and failure are accepted – in particular, failing-forward and failing fast so that each prototype is better than the last

Design Thinking Workshop – Getting Started

For our workshop, we needed a room full of eager participants who had some interest and familiarity with the issue and who would be game to roll up their sleeves, try a new approach and explore untapped solutions. And we had the perfect opportunity at the 2nd annual Thomson Reuters Women’s Transformational Leadership Conference that Stikeman Elliott sponsored and I co-chaired with Bindu Dhaliwal of BMO. There, we engaged an incredible group of over 100 lawyers from law firms, legal departments, academic and other organizations.

With that foundation in place, at the conference on May 3rd we led a Design Thinking workshop with each table of eight participants working together to identify unique and practical ways to increase sponsorship for women lawyers across a range of organizations. During the workshop, participants applied the classic Design Thinking principles mentioned above – namely; empathy, creativity and failing fast – to explore ways to increase sponsorship for women lawyers. Collectively the group came up with hundreds of ideas. We can’t wait to tell you all about it in our next post!


[1] Sylvia Ann Hewlett et al., The sponsor effect: Breaking through the last glass ceiling (Boston, Harvard Business Review Research Report, 2010).

[2] Ritu Bhasin, Laura Sherbin & Julia Taylor Kennedy, Sponsor Effect: Canada, (New York, Center for Talent Innovation, 2017).

[3] Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career (Boston, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

[4] Dave Evans, co-author of the book "Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life", from his discussion with Shankar Vedantam on Hidden Brain (NPR April 28, 2017)

[5] See Tilmann Lindberg, Christoph Meinel, and Ralf Wagner: "Design Thinking: A Fruitful Concept for IT Development?" 2011; see also Danielle Logue: "Wicked problems and business strategy: is design thinking an answer?" (May 2012)

DISCLAIMER: This publication is intended to convey general information about legal issues and developments as of the indicated date. It does not constitute legal advice and must not be treated or relied on as such. Please read our full disclaimer at www.stikeman.com/legal-notice.

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