Despite the good intentions and best efforts of some organizations to make diversity in the executive ranks a top priority, gender inequality persists throughout corporate Canada.

The evidence is clear. Women held just 12 percent of all board seats among TSX-listed companies in 2015.

American Express Canada believes creating opportunities for female executives in the senior leadership team through mentorship and sponsorship programs can have a positive effect on an organization.

And the results are proving that belief to be true.

American Express Canada proudly boasts a 50/50 representation of women and men among its leadership, and serves as an example to the rest of the business community for how organizations can build stronger, more integrated and innovative teams by bringing more women into their C-suites. Mentorship and sponsorship are at the foundation of this.

Mentorship, which can be asked for, is a formal or informal relationship with an advisor or peer who acts as a role model. Sponsorship, however, is earned rather than assigned; these are the relationships that help propel young talent to senior leadership, and have a proven impact on their self-perception and ambition. 

Organizations can give high-potential women opportunities and increased visibility for potential sponsorship relationships.  “Fostering a culture where executives can nurture the next generation of leaders through mentorship and sponsorship can help shape the direction of an organization for the long-term,” says Catherine Finley, Vice President of Human Resources at Amex Canada.

“Balanced leadership does not come without intent and active support.”

Developing mentorship and sponsorship bonds with male and female role models played a significant role in Lili Ibarra’s journey through the ranks of American Express. Ibarra started as a call centre representative in 1997 and steadily advanced to her current position as Chief Financial Officer, Amex Bank of Canada. Her ability to draw strength from her mentors helped overcome a number of challenges, including transitioning to an executive role after her maternity leave.

“Mentorship relationships were crucial in helping me navigate the changes I was going through on both a personal and professional level,” she says. “My mentors provided guidance and focus during a challenging, transitional time in my career.”

Of course, it’s not always easy to find a sponsor. Ibarra recommends female executives looking for a mentor to identify other executives they already have a connection with or who they have previously partnered with on a project.

“There has to be some chemistry with your mentor so you can establish a relationship of trust,” she says. “You will not always hear the things you want to hear from your mentor. That can be tough at times. You’ve got to have confidence that your mentor is working in your best interest.”

Indeed, a recent study from Amex Canada and Women of Influence found that when female leaders work with a mentor throughout their career, they were not only more likely to aspire to the C-suite, but they were more likely to reach their goals.

“We found that while only 32 percent of women believed that reaching the C-suite was an achievable goal, that number increased to 49 percent if they have a mentor, and 61 percent if they have a sponsor,” Finley says.

Finley believes organizations that are serious about nurturing female executives must take a proactive role in fostering a community of mentorship and leadership among women, whether through profiling great female role models within the organization or establishing women’s networks as American Express has.

“This really enables women to meet with like-minded women, to foster relationships, and to feel like they’re part of a community,” she says.

“We find women have the most success when they seek out organizations that prioritize an inclusive and diverse corporate culture, and work with their current HR departments to find or establish these networks if they don’t yet exist."