Brian Clohessy and Isabella Aliberti have recently interviewed six women in equity positions in large Australian practices as part of the Last Mile podcast, developed as part of the Champions of Change Architecture Sponsorship Action Group, and published in collaboration with Parlour. They reflect on the themes that emerge and what they mean for career growth and development.

For any professional, at any stage of their career, continuing to forge ahead is rarely possible without the ongoing guidance and support of their colleagues and industry peers.

Sponsorship is a means of formalising this guidance and support – offering up people themselves as a resource for professional development. Sponsors have an active responsibility to advocate for the individual under their stewardship. As senior figures, they are able to provide individuals with access to opportunities and contacts with the potential to grow their skills and advance their careers exponentially.

However, sponsorship is not a one-size-fits-all concept, particularly when it comes to women in the last mile of their careers.

We need only look at the statistics within our own industry. While women make up almost half of all architectural graduates in Australia, they are still largely underrepresented in senior leadership and ownership positions (Parlour Census Report, 2021). Despite a reasonably equal number of men and women entering the profession, women are leaving in far greater numbers compared to men at the same age. This unequal attrition suggests gender biases may contribute to reduced opportunities for career advancement among women, with the end result being a leadership cohort heavily skewed towards men.

This tells us that, at least to some degree, men and women experience work opportunities and career progression differently. For sponsorship to be truly effective, these differences need to be considered.

This is important because building a career is a cumulative process, and both advantage and disadvantage accumulate over time. Each opportunity builds on previous ones. Some opportunities can be career-making; others provide smaller gateways or building blocks. Being repeatedly locked out of either can make any sort of upward climb seem like an impossibility.

Tailoring sponsorship to the individual is essentially about ensuring no worthy person is overlooked for a worthwhile opportunity. This requires a sponsor to invest time in understanding the interplay between someone’s personality and professional goals, and their personal and professional life. It’s about fostering a true partnership and creating the right environmental conditions for a person to unlock their full potential and seize the opportunities that lie ahead at any stage of their career.

Sponsorship = Relationship

Sponsorship goes beyond mere professional acquaintance. It requires investing time in building a genuine relationship. Sponsors must actively engage with the individuals they are supporting, to understand not only their career aspirations but also their personal circumstances. This creates a foundation for mutual trust and enables sponsors to offer targeted guidance and opportunities that are in sync with the person’s current life situation.

Sponsorship changes over the span of a career

The last mile of a career is a unique phase where personal circumstances, aspirations and challenges converge. While sponsorship programs are still sometimes seen as for those at the start of their careers, in reality opportunities contract the further up one climbs the career ladder, and advocacy and support become more important that ever.

Recognising the synergy of mentorship and sponsorship

Mentorship and sponsorship are two sides of the same coin, working in tandem to foster professional growth. While mentors provide guidance and wisdom, sponsors actively advocate for their sponsees, opening doors and creating opportunities. Acknowledging this symbiotic relationship is vital for women in the last mile of their careers. They require both a trusted mentor who can provide wisdom and a sponsor who can champion their progress, leveraging their influence to create transformative opportunities.

Supporting individual career aspirations

Sponsors must be attuned to the individual’s career goals and aspirations. A sponsor’s role is not to impose their own vision but to understand and support what the person wants to achieve. By aligning their efforts with the individual’s aspirations, sponsors can provide tailored opportunities, guidance and resources, empowering women to pursue meaningful paths and achieve their full potential.

The importance of a true partnership at home

Supporting women in the last mile of their careers necessitates recognising the significance of a true partnership at home. Balancing personal and professional demands can be challenging, but with a supportive partner, individuals can navigate these complexities more effectively. A true partnership involves sharing responsibilities, understanding each other’s career phases, and providing a support network that acknowledges the ambitions and challenges faced by women in the last mile of their careers.

Creating a safe environment for growth

One of the most crucial elements of effective sponsorship is creating a safe environment that encourages growth and risk-taking. Women in the last mile of their careers often face unique pressures and uncertainties. Sponsors can unlock their full potential by fostering an environment where failure is not stigmatised but seen as an opportunity for growth. When individuals feel safe to fail, they can develop the confidence to be their authentic selves and continue to be motivated in seeking opportunity.

In the early stages of a career, sponsorship can be a relatively subtle endeavour, focusing on providing encouragement, support and advice.

However, as individuals approach the last mile of their careers, sponsorship takes on a more focused and invested role. Sponsors must dedicate time to understand the complexities of their sponsee’s circumstances and aspirations. By doing so, they can offer tailored support that addresses specific needs, reinforcing confidence and empowering individuals to seize opportunities and make significant strides in their professional journeys.

The rewarding nature of sponsorship lies not only in the positive impact it has on the sponsee’s career trajectory, but also in the personal growth experienced by the sponsors. By investing time, effort and empathy in supporting others, sponsors gain a deeper understanding of their sponsee’s unique journeys, enhancing their ability to advocate for them effectively behind closed doors. The sponsorship journey is one that, done well, gives back equally to both parties – not just in the form of professional accomplishments but in personal growth and fulfilment.

Brian Clohessy’s career path has taken him from architect to project leader to BVN’s Sydney Studio Director, through to his latest incarnation at BVN, as Head of People and Character. Brian leads the development of the overall vision, strategy and structure for all things people-related at BVN. He has a special focus on mental wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, learning and development and people retention. Essentially Brian sees his role as maintaining BVN’s evolving culture based on human needs and aspirations, which inevitably improves the collective’s wellbeing.

Isabella Aliberti was born in Brazil, grew up in Portugal, studied Law in the UK and has been living in Australia since 2016. Her life’s journey, spanning across continents and cultures, has instilled in her an unwavering belief in the power of human connection and a broad interest and respect for different cultures and societies. All this led Isabella to pursue a career as an HR professional, and being an avid project manager, she helps all people-related things comes to life at BVN. As she continues on this journey, Isabella is passionate about data analytics and wishes to further explore how data can help inform people initiatives to continue to foster inclusive, impactful and thriving work environments.