Canada: Design Thinking Applied To The Advancement Of Women – Increasing Sponsorship

We have challenged ourselves to use Design Thinking as a way to bring fresh ideas to the goal of advancing women in the legal profession. In this post I look at some barriers to the advancement of women and, in particular, lack of sponsorship, and how Design Thinking can help. In upcoming posts, Andrea Alliston will look at the process of Design Thinking, and together we will share lessons learned so that you can use these techniques in your own organizations.

Advancing Women in Law

The advancement of women continues to be a pressing issue for the legal profession. It's a frequent topic for lawyers, law firm leaders, general counsels, and other clients, but, it's not an easy issue to address and, as always, there are a multitude of perspectives.

Is "work-life balance" the challenge for women lawyers given the demands of the job? Or are unconscious biases holding them back? Is it that women aren't leaning in, sitting at the table and taking risks, or is it that no one is pulling women in or inviting them to the table? We've all done focus groups, engagement surveys and brainstorms and have looked at the issue through every possible lens.

The Power of Sponsorship

At Stikeman Elliott, in our own exploration, we've uncovered the powerful role that sponsorship plays in advancing women – and in particular, the role it plays in propelling women towards partnership. We know sponsorship applies in other environments as well.

Research tells us that being sponsored has a significant impact on an individual's career advancement. The Centre for Talent Innovation found that sponsorship can increase an individual's salary and stretch assignments (those extremely important projects that increase our skills, credibility and confidence), by up to 30%.1 The same study found that compared to men, women are woefully under-sponsored as men are 46% more likely than women to have a sponsor. Another study in 2017 further highlights the power of sponsorship in our workplaces but found that very few women (and people of colour and Indigenous people) in Canada have sponsors.2

Sponsorship is different from mentorship. Mentors provide critical career advice and support – giving up their time and expertise to help their mentees integrate and "learn the ropes". Sponsors, on the other hand, give their own political capital inside, and sometimes outside, an organization, to advance the career of a protégé. It's about putting one's own reputation and goodwill on the line to advance another. One can have several mentees, but can realistically only sponsor one or two protégés at any one time.

In her often cited book on the topic, Forget A Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett3, identifies the key behaviours of sponsors and protégés as follows:

Click the image below to download a PDF copy.

Increasing Sponsorship For Women Lawyers

It's clear that getting more women lawyers sponsored by influential partners/firm leaders is a key piece in the advancement puzzle. But when it comes to increasing sponsorship for women so that they can reap the same benefits as their male counterparts, we had more questions than answers:

  • Practically speaking, how exactly do we increase sponsorship at our firm?
  • Can we develop a "program" or is sponsorship strictly an organic relationship that cannot be manufactured or simulated?
  • What are the sponsorship best practices and how do we teach and encourage those amongst busy partners and firm leaders?
  • How do we get people to sponsor those who are not like them?

We needed some creative solutions to these questions. Moreover, we wanted to look at the issue from three different perspectives:

  • women lawyers trying to advance;
  • potential sponsors looking for ways to support women they work with and
  • leaders invested in implementing organizational programs to advance women.

Rather than our "go-to" brainstorming and feedback sessions, we decided to put the challenging question of 'how to increase sponsorship for women in the legal industry' to a design thinking workshop. 

Design Thinking 101

Design Thinking is a "human-centered" problem solving technique that has become increasingly popular as we've sought more innovative solutions in our workplaces and communities.

Difficult problems fall into two buckets - those that we know how to solve, and those where there is no clear path forward. Solving these two different kinds of problems requires two different approaches. It turns out that the latter - the problems that we don't know how to solve - are particularly well suited to Design Thinking.4 

There are a few reasons why Design Thinking can work when traditional problem solving techniques cannot5:

  • Empathy for the user is at the core – participants put themselves in the shoes of the person experiencing the problem, not the problem solver
  • Creativity is key – the process requires integrative thinking and benefits from a diverse group of participants from different disciplines and backgrounds
  • It's iterative – the creative process is not sequential, but overlapping which means that you keep working on the problem with ideas and solutions that grow, change and develop as you move through the process
  • Fast feedback and failure are accepted – in particular, failing-forward and failing fast so that each prototype is better than the last

Design Thinking Workshop – Getting Started

For our workshop, we needed a room full of eager participants who had some interest and familiarity with the issue and who would be game to roll up their sleeves, try a new approach and explore untapped solutions. And we had the perfect opportunity at the 2nd annual Thomson Reuters Women's Transformational Leadership Conference that Stikeman Elliott sponsored and I co-chaired with Bindu Dhaliwal of BMO. There, we engaged an incredible group of over 100 lawyers from law firms, legal departments, academic and other organizations.

With that foundation in place, at the conference on May 3rd we led a Design Thinking workshop with each table of eight participants working together to identify unique and practical ways to increase sponsorship for women lawyers across a range of organizations. During the workshop, participants applied the classic Design Thinking principles mentioned above – namely; empathy, creativity and failing fast – to explore ways to increase sponsorship for women lawyers. Collectively the group came up with hundreds of ideas. We can't wait to tell you all about it in our next post!


1. Sylvia Ann Hewlett et al., The sponsor effect: Breaking through the last glass ceiling (Boston, Harvard Business Review Research Report, 2010).

2. Ritu Bhasin, Laura Sherbin & Julia Taylor Kennedy, Sponsor Effect: Canada, (New York, Center for Talent Innovation, 2017).

3. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career (Boston, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

4. Dave Evans, co-author of the book "Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life", from his discussion with Shankar Vedantam on Hidden Brain (NPR April 28, 2017)

5. See Tilmann Lindberg, Christoph Meinel, and Ralf Wagner: "Design Thinking: A Fruitful Concept for IT Development?" 2011; see also Danielle Logue: "Wicked problems and business strategy: is design thinking an answer?" (May 2012)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions