Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

What is sponsorship and why is it so important for women?

I am currently immersed in finalising my research project examining sponsorship practices in higher education. In anticipation of writing a few blogs on the interesting findings I have to report, I thought it would be useful to lay some groundwork. What is the big deal about sponsorship? A few years ago we didn’t even talk about sponsorship. Women were being urged to find mentors, and now this advice is being replaced with women being urged to find sponsors. This change in tack is nicely encapsulated in the title of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book (Forget a mentor) Find a Sponsor. Her subtitle The New Way to Fast-Track your Career also provides some insight into the positive hype surrounding sponsorship.

In this blog I want to talk about the research that brought sponsorship into the limelight, and why it is important, particularly but not exclusively from a gender perspective, to distinguish between mentoring and sponsorship.

The Ibarra, Carter and Silva (2010) article Why men still get more promotions that women reported game changing research on mentoring. Published in the Harvard Business Review, it captured the attention of many when the authors concluded that mentoring programs were failing women. They identified sponsorship as the ‘missing ingredient’ for women in mentoring relationships, which then explained why women gain less career benefit from both formal (program based) and informal mentoring than men.

All mentoring is not created equal…There is a special kind of relationship – called sponsorship – in which the mentor goes beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee. Ibarra, Carter and Silva (2010:82)

While mentors advise and support, sponsors play a much more active role, using their networks, power and influence to ‘advocate for, make visible, and fight to get their protégé to the next level’ (Ibarra et al., 2010, p. 83).

Sponsorship, when it is present can be career-making, and when it is absent, career-breaking. If women, as Ibarra et al. claim, are over-mentored and under-sponsored this could go some way towards explaining the under-representation of women in the senior ranks of organisations.  

Other gendered differences were evident. Mentors, predominantly male, helped men to;

plan their moves and take charge in new roles, in addition to endorsing their authority publicly … Not only do the women report few examples of this kind of endorsement; they also share numerous stories about how they’ve had to fight with their mentors to be viewed as ready for the next role’ (Ibarra et al., 2010:83).

Gendered norms and stereotypes were intruding into the mentoring/sponsoring relationships. Women were being judged as less ‘sponsorship worthy’, receiving less sponsorship and endorsement, considered not ready for the next role, and being advised to change to better fit existing leadership norms. This highlights the way in which mentors through their sponsorship practices may be (unconsciously) reinforcing gendered norms of leadership and inadvertently replicating the status quo as they sponsor men and mentor women.

Distinguishing between the role and practices of mentoring and sponsorship is important. Putting a separate spotlight on the importance of sponsorship highlights the need to further examine the role sponsorship plays in building careers in a variety of contexts. It does not devalue mentoring, but it allows us to identify more clearly what is and isn’t happening in women’s careers. This in turn will enable a more targeted approach in designing strategies to support women’s career advancement.

The notion of sponsorship as a distinct role and set of behaviours has been enthusiastically endorsed and built on in the ensuing corporate research. Corporate mentoring programs have been increasingly replaced by sponsorship programs. However the problematic intrusion of gender stereotypes and unconscious bias into the mentoring and/or sponsorship relationship, be that an informally occurring relationship or one provided by the organization through a program, has been largely overlooked.

The work of Ibarra et al. (2010) has shown that women and organisations had optimistic hopes and aspirations for mentoring programs that have not been realised. Expecting that sponsorship programs instead will achieve the desired outcomes without addressing gendered norms, stereotypes and bias is also naïve. In future blogs I’ll address the many things that can be done to develop more gender insightful working relationships and how to build mentoring and sponsorship cultures.  This will ensure more equitable distribution of the career-making opportunities provided by good sponsorship.  

Ibarra, H., Carter, N. M., & Silva, C. (2010). Why men still get more promotions than women. Harvard Business Review, September, 80-85.