Sunflowers not wallflowers: The role of sponsorship in nurturing female tech leaders

Women clapping speaker at an event


Zarana Pasalic, Director, Customer Experience, Cisco, takes a look at what exactly sponsorship is and how you can use it to your advantage.

Zarina is a senior technology leader with world-leading expertise in customer experience. 

She has over 20 years experience of in driving transformational customer-centric change, optimising the customer journey, and streamlining digital experience (DX). Zarina has been recognised as a natural driver of change, able to respond to disruptions in the marketplace, and achieve business impact by delivering customer relevance and value.

Zarana Pasalic, Director, Customer Experience, Cisco

She is highly driven, able to critically evaluate, and recommend successful strategies to increase revenue and build stronger relationships with customers and business partners.


However, study after study shows that men get more chances to bloom in organisations and rise up the ranks, than women. Across all industries and roles, women are promoted at a slower rate than men. Indeed, only 86 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men at the same level, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report.

Meanwhile, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research shows that 49% of women believe gender bias is alive and well in the US workplace. (Only 28% of men agreed.) If we want more diversity and inclusion in tech, and the gaping gender gap narrowed, sponsorship programmes are needed more than ever.

They work. I’ve witnessed sponsorship as an advancement game-changer, especially for female professionals. A Harvard Business Review article titled, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women” revealed that women with sponsors were 27% more likely than their unsponsored female peers to ask for a pay rise. And they were 22 % more likely to ask for ‘stretch assignments’ to build their reputations as leaders.

A senior leader taking an active role meant they got noticed and got on.


Sponsorship is having your own personal advocate in the business, who amplifies what you are achieving to the audiences who matter.  A sponsor is different to a mentor in that a sponsor will advocate for you, say your name in spaces to which you don’t have access, provide opportunities for authentic visibility, and make room for you at tables you never knew existed. Once you have seized on an opportunity – perhaps a project you want to own, or an opening for promotion – a sponsor will help propel you towards that goal. It’s not a favour or an act of kindness. Sponsorship is a two-way street. Your progress reflects well on the sponsor and helps the wider business. For the sponsor, this is a very direct and rewarding way to see promising people reach their potential, for the good of the organisation.

And in all honesty, if future leadership talent isn’t noticed and encouraged, there is a big risk ambitious women in tech will take their skills elsewhere.


As a female tech leader, I knocked on doors and asked for ad hoc help with things I wanted to achieve, aware of the futility of waiting for my efforts and ideas to get noticed by incredibly busy executives. Thankfully today the majority of large organisations encourage career sponsorship and have programmes in place to develop talent in this way. Cisco is committed to active sponsorship, providing opportunities for authentic visibility, and making room for more women and people of colour at the top tables.

What I can do now, as an experienced leader in tech, is share my learnings of being a sponsor. My view is that if you can support promising individuals, you’ll see extraordinary talents blossom and diversity flourish. Too often harmful myths are allowed to perpetuate that put the brakes on promotion, particularly for minority group employees. Many young female IT professionals I speak to feel that if they quietly deliver consistently, they’ll get noticed and be promoted. But that’s not enough. Another dangerous belief is that managers are responsible for everyone’s career growth and trajectory. Again, this isn’t always the case. What’s needed is for an individual to have the chance to speak up in front of top-level decision-makers. Often this can only come to fruition if you ask for the opportunity.


Ideally, sponsors not only believe in your potential, they’re also willing to take risks on your behalf. A really good, proactive sponsor will sign their sponsees up to training classes, executive coaching, seminars, and key corporate occasions. But most importantly, it’s about finding opportunities to give you airtime, and a chance to show your mettle, voice ideas and influence higher management.

For me, the best sponsors are those who help their protégé pinpoint specific goals and then do their utmost to open the doors to those goals with support, recommendations, and advocacy. They should ensure you connect with the right people by introducing you to a wide network of influential professionals in your company, in different departments, or perhaps the wider industry.


Sponsorship is credited with influencing three things: pay rises, high-profile assignments, and promotions. However my belief is that the greatest benefit sponsorship can deliver is self-confidence. Only with this, can all other career achievements become possible, and strong leaders be cultivated. The term imposter syndrome has been bandied around a lot in recent years, and for many high-potential females, an irrational feeling of being incapable, or a fraud, really can block progress. The sponsor effect on these professionals is impressive, as many studies confirm.

One concern being voiced by gender workplace academics is that more men than women are getting themselves set up with sponsorship “Sponsorship tends to power-replicate itself,” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, has warned. I urge both male and female leaders in tech to recognise this dangerous pattern and take responsible action. Advocating the skills of women will be worth it if we are to nurture the talents of our next generation of leaders.

Wallflowers get nowhere. Sunflowers scale to great heights and shine for all to see.


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