In July this year, consultancy and audit major EY India promoted 11 women employees to senior management positions - six as partners and five as executive directors.
"This is the highest number of women promotions (to the top) in the past few years," says Sandeep Kohli, national director (human resources), EY.
This wasn't serendipity, but the outcome of a specially-crafted four-year-old sponsor programme, Career Watch, to nurture high-performing women candidates for leadership roles.
Through the past three to four years, half the women covered by the sponsor programme have been promoted to leadership positions at EY.
Similarly, about four years ago, American Express India, as part of a global initiative, began to look at ways to improve the pipeline of key women talent at the top.
This year, about 25 per cent of senior positions at the company are occupied by women; 67 per cent of American Express India's workforce comprises women.
Sponsor vs Mentor
A sponsor is a top-level champion in the organisation who uses his/her powers and influence to accelerate your career growth plans
A mentor is someone who can help you learn a certain skill, or provide good career advice and guidance
You earn a sponsor based on your performance and potential; you can simply ask someone to be your mentor
A mentor doesn't have to be someone more senior than you, but that isn't the case with a sponsor
Vishpala Reddy, vice-president (human resources), American Express India, says an important factor that helped improve representation of women in top management positions at the company was its 'Pathways to Sponsorship' programme.
Launched in 2012, it goes beyond routine mentorship programmes.
Spread through nine months, the programme includes working closely with a sponsor - a senior executive in the organisation who could use his or her influence with the top management to aid career-advancing decisions for candidates.
Clearly, sponsors are beginning to make a visible impact on gender diversity at the top echelons of companies.
Business process outsourcing major Genpact is currently into its second sponsorship programme, following the successful completion of the first global programme for high-potential women (2013).
About 70 per cent of the representation in that group was from India, says Sasha Sanyal, global head of strategy & global D&I lead, Genpact.
Targeting a wider segment of potential leaders, the programme includes high-performing women at the levels of senior manager and assistant vice-president.
"These women are at a crucial stage in their careers, in which they have the potential to grow into future leaders of the organisation," says Sanyal.
Several other organisations are taking note of the role sponsors could play in improving the gender diversity profiles of their companies. Earlier this year, chemicals major DuPont launched a sponsorship programme across Asia.
"The programme is designed to bring visibility to high-potential talent, and proactively work on their next assignment. It's specifically aimed to help advance their career paths," says Joji-Sekhon Gill, regional HR director (Asia Pacific/ANZ), DuPont.
To start with, the programme is looking at top talent from Asia, with 15 participants from the region, including a sponsor from India.
So, how is a sponsor different from a mentor? According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder-chief executive, Center for Talent Innovation, and author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, sponsorship is critical in invigorating ambition and driving engagement.
"We find women and people of colour who have sponsors are more satisfied with their rate of advancement than those who don't have that advocacy," says Hewlett. As such, sponsorship programmes could act as a retention tool for organisations.
Experts say both mentors and sponsors can co-exist. "Both are critical, despite playing different roles. Mentors advise, while sponsors act," says Hewlett.
Karyn Twaronite, partner and global diversity & inclusiveness leader, EY, describes their respective roles figuratively: "A mentor stands by your side, while a sponsor is one who is in front of you."
"Sponsorship is earned by delivering and driving results," says Reddy.
For all companies, it is the senior leadership team that chooses sponsors for each candidate, depending on seniority in the organisation, interest and inclination to participate in the growth of other high-potential employees, and leadership style and competence.
Buoyed by initial success, companies are looking to scale up the programmes. Taking note of key learning from earlier programmes, companies such American Express and Genpact are looking at cross-regional pairing of sponsors and proteges.
"Since most of our sponsors manage global teams, they are actually identifying proteges in regions other than their own," says Genpact's Sanyal.
Some internal business units at Genpact are exploring the feasibility of running a sponsorship programme within their own businesses.
At American Express, the Path to Sponsorship programme's latest avatar stresses alumni interaction, and sharing learning with their teams.
Clearly, sponsors are here to stay in corporate India.