By Melissa J. Anderson

A new study by the Center for Talent Innovation has revealed how important relationships are when it comes to climbing the ranks to senior management.  The report, Sponsor Effect: UK, also busts the myth that women are taking themselves out of the running for C-level positions due to a lack of ambition or because of family demands. In fact, the UK’s top performing women desire advancement much more than their male counterparts.

According to the study, 91% of senior-level women in the UK say they are looking for a promotion, compared with only 76% of senior men. On top of that, 79% of senior women say they want a top job, while only 74% of senior men say the same. Clearly, an ambition gap is not what’s keeping more women out of leadership.

“Nor is childrearing pulling women off track, as 39 percent of women over 40 do not have kids,” the report continues. Even still, CTI says, women comprise a miniscule percentage of CEO and executive director jobs in FTSE 100 companies – and larger companies are often even better than small ones when it comes to the percentage women holding top jobs. What’s keeping women out of the C-suite in the UK?

According to the report authors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Lauren Leader-Chivée and Karen Sumberg with Catherine Fredman and Claire Ho, the answer is relationships. Senior level men in the UK are 50% more likely than senior women to have a sponsor. Despite their fierce ambition (UK women are 22% more likely to aspire to the top job than women in the US), UK women aren’t receiving the support they need from the top in order to propel their careers forward.

Sponsorship, Retention, and Advancement

According to CTI, women in the UK have long believed that more seats at the table were within their grasp. The study explains:

“A generation ago, when the number of female university graduates rose rapidly and women began entering the workplace in droves, no one doubted that the most able and most driven would eventually reach the executive suite. Margaret Thatcher had, after all, risen to the top slot in government. Making it to the top of the business world was assumed to be simply a matter of time.”

But this has not been the case. Despite the fact that 57 females now enter the professional workforce for every 43 males in the UK, the view from the top is very different. The report explains, “For all their qualifications, women represent only 4 percent of CEOs and 6.6 percent of executive directors of the FTSE 100; women currently hold only 22 percent of seats in Parliament, putting the UK 54th among 189 countries with national parliaments.”

The solution, CTI believes, is sponsorship.

“In other words, a rich cadre of female talent in the marzipan layer is perfectly poised to move up the career ladder. They’re qualified. They’re eager. They’re ready and waiting.

“They’re simply not advancing, our research reveals, because they lack the advocacy—the sponsors and powerful mentors—to propel and protect them through the perilous straits of upper management.”

According to the study, senior men are 50% more likely than senior women to have a career sponsor. Sponsorship, the study continues, is the key to retaining top women.

A quarter of high performing women without sponsors say they plan to quit in the next year – yet this percentage dips to 11% for high performing women with sponsors. Interestingly, sponsorship has no effect on whether high performing men plan to stay or leave their jobs.

Finally, while women sincerely want to see female role models with children succeeding in the workplace, they also believe that men make better sponsors. “For starters, to these women, men appear to be better connected: 55 percent of them cited men’s internal network as the number-one reason to choose male rather than female sponsors, and 32 percent considered men optimal for their external networks.

By encouraging more cross-gender networking and sponsorship, companies can help women advance in numbers proportionate to their ambition and abilities.