Sponsorship as a mechanism for the advancement of workplace and career opportunities, especially for women and equity-seeking people, is a promising approach.
“Having an effective sponsor advocating for you accelerates careers more powerfully than other kinds of workplace relationships.”
Marissa D. King, author of Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection, illustrates how sponsorship can be more powerful than mentorship for career acceleration. In fact, she says sponsorship is “one of the strongest predictors of promotions and salaries” as well as your own career satisfaction. Having an effective sponsor advocating for you accelerates careers more powerfully than other kinds of workplace relationships.
The Difference Between Mentorship and Sponsorship
It makes sense. Mentors tend to take the role of advice givers. Sponsors actively open doors for you. Radhika Panjwani says sponsors are “influential decision-makers and part of the protégé’s reporting chain,” endorsing and paving the way for their “sponsees” to access new assignments, promotions, connections, and pay increases.
“Sponsors put their own workplace reputations on the line to endorse you and facilitate your access to opportunities.”
No wonder that finding a truly effective and willing sponsor is more challenging than finding a mentor. The expectations are higher for sponsors, and so are the stakes. Sponsors put their own workplace reputations on the line to endorse you and facilitate your access to opportunities you might not otherwise have. Sponsors are asked to take a risk on you.
And in terms of numbers, the pool of sponsors available to you is also going to be smaller, given that it is best if your sponsor is someone you report to directly or indirectly, within your workplace reporting stream.
What are the Challenges Women Face in Accessing Sponsorships?
We have to be cognizant of the fact that sponsorship is powerful, and by nature, powered. When it comes to closing the gender pay gap, research shows that sponsorship by a white male colleague is part of the magic corrective formula for women, especially women of colour, who face a bigger pay gap than white women.
But it is not really magic at all. This is how discrimination plays out. Those in key decision-making roles, in upper management, the C-suite, and board positions, are more likely to be male and white. Women and other equity-seeking people like Indigenous people, people of colour, and people with disabilities are only now getting access to modest leadership opportunities in corporate Canada.
“71% of sponsors said their primary protégé is their same race or gender.”
Given the effects of common workplace biases, intentional or not, this makes it hard for some of us to find a sponsor who is going to have the capacity to jumpstart our careers. A study found that 71% of sponsors said their primary protégé is their same race or gender.
This is called “Mini-Me Syndrome”. It applies to identity factors like race and gender but also intersects with things like leadership and workplace styles, experience, and skills. Just 17% of sponsors in the study said their primary protégé has a valuable style of management different from their own.
“The struggle to find a good sponsor with significant influence has serious economic and material consequences for women and equity-seeking workers.”
Affinity bias is a very human tendency we all have to connect with those who share our interests, experiences, and backgrounds. It is not negative in and of itself, nor is it limited to the most powered people in a workplace. But when it comes to career advancement, the struggle to find a good sponsor with significant influence has serious economic and material consequences for women and equity-seeking workers.
No wonder King says that one in five men have a sponsor, compared to one in eight women. Like many other workplace advancement tools, parental support and professional development opportunities and the like, some of us have more access to the benefits of sponsorship.
Privilege lines up in ways that help those who already have a lot of it. This is the result of no fault or lack of hard work on the part of those with less access.
Why Sponsorships Are So Important for Women
I am lucky to have had the benefit of sponsors in the early stages of my career in Canada’s nonprofit sector. Two racialized women in executive leadership roles who had both been my supervisors took me on. They endorsed me, coached me, taught me, encouraged me to tag along with them, and offered me unique opportunities two decades ago, long before the language of sponsorship entered the zeitgeist.
My sponsors’ belief in me was remarkable. It made a world of difference at the time as well as in my future trajectory. They facilitated my growth, maturity, and skill development in immeasurable ways. I cannot envision what the path to where I am today would have been had it not been for their intervention.
I understand why sponsorship is considered something earned and difficult to assign. As much as sponsorship does for the bottom line and as much as it is a benefit to the sponsor themselves, we cannot deny that it includes a higher level of commitment than other workplace relationships. It might take some sacrifice, too.
But if I am being honest, I do not think I earned the sponsorship I received in my formative career years. At least in the beginning, my two sponsors gave me far more benefits than they received. I also think they went above and beyond what a typical sponsor is called to do.
One of my sponsors called a funder on the phone on my behalf to intervene when that funder had said something discriminatory to me and I did not know how to tell them it was not okay.
My other sponsor offered me a project lead role when her colleague said I was not capable of leadership. That sponsor suspected her colleague might have been speaking from a place of bias. She chose a different course of action in response to what could have been career-tanking comment.
These are but two examples of how my sponsors lifted me up, at risk to their own careers. I could not be more grateful to them both. They modelled what real equity and humanity-affirming sponsorship can do for women and equity-seeking people, especially in the early-career stages.
They proved that it is not just white men who can be effective in sponsorship relationships. It all depends on how the power is sorted, who holds it, and who speaks truth to it.
Making A Case for Leaps of Faith
My story has made the case for why sponsors need to get comfortable with taking leaps of faith. Sometimes, the leaps will be small. At times, the leaps will be big.
Workplaces need to make all leaps of faith more possible and common. Create structures that reward sponsors for taking leaps of faith and that encourage sponsees to ask for that level of endorsement.
Companies must be more visionary and strategic in how they diversify the pathways to leadership so that white male sponsors are not the only ones who have a real chance at getting results. The way things are in workplaces right now, it is only going to be the most powered and connected people who are going to be most effective in their sponsorship efforts.
We need to set the stage for greater diversity in sponsors. We need programs and support to lighten their burdens so they can manage it as a part of their leadership and access its benefits too.
Especially at the highest levels of leadership, we need to hold leaders accountable for sponsorship outcomes and results. We are long past the point of proof that a high bar of diversity, equity, and inclusion is excellent for business. It is time for us to incorporate visionary, diverse sponsorship as a key part of it.