Blog

November 28, 2012It's not just leading projects that matters for career advancement. It's leading the right projects.

We’ve been following the careers of MBA grads from around the world, and Catalyst’s new report, Good Intentions, Imperfect Execution?, the latest in our Promise of Future Leadership project, uncovers the career experiences that can really change the course of someone’s career. Three types of development opportunities, or "hot jobs," most impacted advancement: large and visible projects, mission-critical roles, and international assignments. The best and brightest women largely miss out these "hot jobs."

Previous research showed that women MBA grads earn, on average, $4,600 less than men in their first job out of school, a pay gap that is perpetuated over the course of their careers as men’s salary growth continues to outpace women’s. Our new report helps to explain why the gender gap exists and persists, finding that men got more of the “hot jobs” than women did. Men’s project budgets were twice as large as women’s, their project teams were over three times in size, and they therefore had more C-suite visibility.

And while we did find that women were less interested in relocating (56 percent of men and 39 percent of women were willing to move for work), that didn’t explain the gap in global experiences. Even among the women and men most willing to relocate, more men got international assignments—and more women were never asked.

Notably absent from the list of career-changing experiences are leadership development programs. So do formal leadership development trainings actually pay off?

They can, but only if managed strategically. We found that women were funnelled into development programs earlier in their careers than men, and remained in these programs longer. But all this development didn’t necessarily turn into advancement.

This calls to mind the women we interviewed earlier in The Promise of Future Leadership series, who felt “mentored to death”—frequently nominated for mentoring programs without seeing an impact on their careers.

What's going on here?

Experts call it the 70/20/10 model: 70 percent of development happens on the job, 20 percent happens through critical relationships, and only 10 percent occurs through formal training programs. With mentorship and formal training, women are getting support where it matters the least. Experience in "hot jobs" is vital for career advancement—and sponsors help people get there.

Unlike mentors, high-clout sponsors can advocate for you from behind closed doors to help you get the "hot job" you deserve. This is why many leading organizations are initiating conversations about the power of sponsorship and how it can be used strategically so that high-potential women and men have the support they need to get ahead.

While important, mentorship and development programs aren't enough to close the gaps and ensure that high-potential women progress upwards through the pipeline. Smart companies allocate “hot jobs” in intentional, deliberate, and strategic ways to advance women. They do not leave it to chance.

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Christine Silva directs and supports Canadian and global research projects focused on gender and diversity issues and is a co-author of Catalyst’s longitudinal study of high-potential employees. Ms. Silva received a Master of Industrial Relations from the University of Toronto, a Master of Science in Organizational Behaviour from Queen’s University, and has completed doctoral coursework in Organizational Behaviour at Queen’s University.