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December 13, 2010This just in: the latest Catalyst research highlights deep challenges—and potential solutions—for women seeking to climb the corporate ladder.

For the fifth year in a row, our Census of women leaders in the Fortune 500 showed that women are stuck. Women hold only 14.4% of Executive Officer positions and 15.7% of board seats in F500 companies. A whopping 12.1% of public companies have no women serving on their boards and 27.4% have no women Executive Officers. And women hold only 7.6% of top earner spots.

While disheartening, a separate Catalyst report, Mentoring: Necessary But Insufficient for Advancement, pointed to a possible reason for the disparity. Men have more senior-level mentors who are in a position to provide sponsorship, which can lead to more promotions and greater pay increases. Women, on the other hand, are “mentored to death”—getting developed but not promoted or compensated as much as men.

There’s a big difference between sponsorship and mentorship. Mentors show you the ropes and teach you about the unwritten rules of your organization, but sponsors have clout and advocate on your behalf. They look out for you behind closed doors and ensure you’re visible when opportunities are on the table. “She can do it—trust me,” one might say.

Sponsors can make all the difference to your career. So if your company has a formal sponsorship program, you should express an interest in participating, while companies that do not should consider phasing one in.

But don’t just wait around for a sponsor to find you. Sponsorship is not an entitlement—you have to “earn it” by being a top performer. Connect with senior-level people and communicate your contributions, skills, and interests. Do a great job, get noticed, and you’ll attract a sponsor.

After all, mentors can show you the ropes, but sponsors help you climb them.

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UPDATE: To find out more about why you need a sponsor—someone “on the inside”to advocate for you—check out my new op-ed in WorkingMother.com!