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Whatever we do as junior academics, if we just do it ourselves, there can be a lot of detours on the way to learning the trade. If we have a good mentor, we can cut those detours out and learn so much more.

What are mentoring and sponsorship? What’s the difference?


A mentor is someone who holds a more senior position than the person they are mentoring (the mentee). They are more experienced than their mentee and hold an influential role within the organization, or within the industry more broadly. Mentors act as a role model, provide psychological support to their mentee, and help them advance in their career [1].  


A sponsor is a senior member of an organisation who is a public advocate for the person being sponsored (the sponsee). They help create connections to other senior leaders and provide career opportunities. They provide advice, including on career and executive presence. Sponsors of women often have a greater belief in the abilities of the sponsee, than the sponsee herself. This means they will [support the woman into a position or action that she otherwise would not have had the confidence to attempt [2]. 


The mentor and sponsor roles are distinct. Mentoring can be done in the background. There isn’t a link between mentee performance and the reputation of the mentor. In contrast, sponsors ‘stick their neck out’ for the person they are sponsoring. They hold some responsibility for sponsee performance and are highly visible in their support for the sponsee [2].  


Mentors are often more focused in the here and now, or short term, whereas a sponsor tends to be highly future focused. The mentee drives the mentor/mentee relationship, whereas the sponsor actively seeks opportunities for the sponsee. 


Both roles are important, but they are different. 

Mentor or sponsor?


This is a particularly important question. Many people think the two types of support generate similar outcomes. But they don’t. These two types of support address different gender bias. In many sections, we’ve discussed 1st generation gender bias and 2nd generation gender bias. Mentoring tends to address 1st generation gender bias whereas sponsorship tends to address 2nd generation gender bias. 


Consider merit (see Performance and hiring systems). An ideal worker is often seen to be someone who works full time, without any career interruption and who is available to work long hours [3]. This measure of merit disadvantages women over men because women are much more likely to be working part-time, returning to work from an absence, and managing work and family responsibilities. The way women work can be at odds with the concept of the ideal worker. 


Mentoring sometimes addresses 1st generation gender bias by helping women build the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to get closer to this idea of merit. A mentor does this by actions such as helping the mentee build networks and gain access to necessary experiences (eg secondments) for career advancement.  


But mentoring of this nature doesn’t overcome the issues created for women as a result of the concept of the ideal worker. It doesn’t tackle the ideal worker as a measure of merit; that is 2nd generation gender bias. Sponsorship addresses this definition of merit by having a senior organisational member publicly espousing the capabilities of their sponsee. They act in such a way that the sponsee is seen as meeting the requirements of a role which is measured by the ideal worker standard. Such sponsor actions overcome the bias that negatively impacts women who are judged based on the ideal worker concept. 


Why are mentoring and sponsorship important for women?


There is an argument that one of the reasons women aren’t making it to the top of organisations is that there is a lack of advocacy by both men and women [2].  Mentors and sponsors can provide this advocacy. However, women are less likely than men to ask for a mentor or sponsor.  


Women are also less likely to apply for promotions or senior roles. In fact, they often wait to be asked to apply [4]. Mentors and sponsors can overcome this by encouraging women to apply for promotions and senior positions that become available. Encouragement is a predictor of career progression for women [5]. 


Organisations need to intervene to ensure women have access to mentors and sponsors and are encouraged to enter these relationships. But organisations also need to understand the issues facing their female workforce (at all levels of the organisation) and ensure that initiatives are tailored to meet these issues.

Why should individuals and organisations be interested in mentoring and sponsorship?


Mentoring and sponsorship impact individual outcomes such as greater job and career satisfaction, higher pay, better career advancement and more self-esteem [6][7].   


Employees who have a mentor also show greater commitment to their organization, and committed employees are less likely to leave organisations. So, we want talented employees to have mentors and sponsors.


What can organisations do to successfully introduce mentoring and sponsorship programs?

The strategies organisations use to introduce either program are very similar. While the approaches may be similar, it’s important to remember that mentoring and sponsorship are different. Organisations need to determine their needs before designing any programs. The recommendations presented below are predominantly adapted from the Hewlett et al. [2] research. 


Identify, understand and measure the problem 


It’s important for organisations to address issues that are relevant to their context. Not all issues exist in each organisation and the nature of the issue (and solution) is context specific. There isn’t a one size fits all solution. Start by asking employees; conduct focus groups and speak to individuals across all levels, but especially at the senior levels, to find out what barriers there might be for women trying to advance; is there 1st generation or 2nd generation gender bias? Like all business issues, the issue needs to be understood and measured (see our Data and Measurement section). Knowing the problem allows organisations to determine whether mentoring and/or sponsoring is needed.


Make mentoring and sponsorship transparent 


Organisations need to be careful when introducing either a mentors or sponsor program. People can make assumptions about the nature of a relationship between a male mentor/sponsor and the woman being mentored/sponsored. Often there is an age difference, and there is certainly a power difference. Perceptions of an affair, regardless of reality, are sufficient to cause failure of the mentor/sponsor relationship. Any promotions are perceived to be due to an inappropriate relationship, rather than mentorship/sponsorship [2].  


Also, women are less likely to leverage a mentor/sponsor relationship. They may have access to someone who can help them advance their career, but they might feel this is unethical, even though this is something men do. Further, women who do benefit from a mentorship/sponsorship relationship can be seen as gaining without merit [2]. 


To overcome these issues, organisations need to make mentor/sponsor relationships transparent. They must be open about providing a mentor/sponsor program and the relationships, so that there is no cause for innuendo and assumptions. They need to make it clear that the women in the program are expected to leverage the relationship with their mentor/sponsor and seek outcomes such as promotion, higher pay and upward career moves.


Ensure support from the top 


Like many initiatives, support from the most senior members is essential. As discussed in the diversity-friendly culture section, top management must be engaged in order for controversial or potentially difficult initiatives to be successful. This support will also help improve transparency and reduce risk to women from perceptions of impropriety; remember that it’s perceptions that are important, not reality. 

Mentor and sponsor at all levels 


Women move through organisational levels and need mentoring/sponsoring throughout their career. The person providing the mentoring/sponsoring may change as the woman progresses, but the programs still continue throughout her career. Organisations should offer multiple programs targeting multiple levels such as graduates, early career, mid career and even women returning to work.


Ensure the right women are part of the program 


Organisations need to recognise that women are less likely to ask for a mentor/sponsor. Additionally, women may not have as many opportunities to find suitable mentors/sponsors; their networks may not include senior members of an organisation. Hence, organisations should approach talented women and offer mentorship/sponsorship. 


Provide the right mentor/sponsor 


A mentor needs to be able to provide the right kind of support for their mentee/sponsee.  


Gender can be important when choosing a mentor. The mentoring literature suggests that male mentors tend to be helpful for career advice/support, whereas female mentors tend to be better for social support [1]. Male mentors are more likely to be senior members of organisations with the necessary experience, networks and clout to help women progress; they help women’s careers. Female mentors are able to help their mentees navigate issues such as work/life balance, working in male-dominated workplaces, dealing with gender bias [8]. Female mentors even allow their mentee to practice difficult conversations, such as negotiations, because they have experienced that situation; they help women’s job satisfaction and well-being.  


Women may do well in a group mentor setting. One advantage of group mentoring is that it helps build relationships with multiple participants, which increases the networks to which women then have access [9]. Women need diverse networks to succeed [10]. 


A sponsor is someone who firmly believes in the sponsee. They need to be willing to stick their neck out. Importantly, they need to be there when the sponsee needs them; sometimes this can be when things have gone wrong. Sponsers need to recognise this and be willing to take this risk. Again, there can be a gender difference with sponsors. Male sponsors are more likely to have both internal and external connections to help women. But there are also senior women with enough influence to be able to act as sponsors, although they are fewer in number. The most important factor is to have someone who is powerful enough (and willing) to address 2nd generation gender bias by openly supporting their sponsee. 


Mentoring and sponsorship are one part of the solution. Organisations need to develop diversity-friendly cultures to reduce potential negative outcomes of mentoring and sponsorship initiatives. Similarly, there’s no point in having a mentoring or sponsorship program if women are leaving the organisation because they don’t have access to flexible work arrangements or family-friendly policies. A holistic approach is needed. 

Suggested videos and podcasts

Mentors and Sponsors: How academic women can help each other

Women in Research "Small Wins" Webinar
with ARC Laureate Fellows Professor Sharon Parker, Professor Jie Lu
and Dr Jen de Vries

Mentoring Women - Mentoring Strategies
Glenda Sluga's Podcast - Interview by Sharon Parker
Mentoring Women - Importance of Mentors
See full reference list
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  1. Kulik, C. T., Metz, I., & Gould, J. A. (2016). In the company of women: The well-being consequences of working with (and for)other women. Handbook on Well-Being of Working Women, 189–207. 

  2. Hewlett, S.A., Peraino, K., Sherbin, L. & Sumberg, K. (2010). The sponsor effect: Breaking through the last glass ceiling. Harvard Business Review. December. 

  3. Mainiero, L. A., & Sullivan, S. E. (2005). Kaleidoscope careers: An alternate explanation for the “opt-out” revolution. The Academy of Management Executive, 19, 106–123. 

  4. Morriss, A., Ely, R. J., & Frei, F. X. (2011). Stop holding yourself back. Harvard Business Review, 89(January-February), 160–163. 

  5. Metz, I., & Tharenou, P. (2001). Women’s career advancement: The relative contribution of human and social capital. Group & Organization Management, 26, 312–342. 

  6. Allen, T. D., Eby, L. T., Poteet, M. L., Lentz, E., & Lima, L. (2004). Career benefits associated with mentoring for protégés: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 1, 127-136. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.89.1.127  

  7. Chandler, D. E., Kram, K. E., & Yip, J. (2011). An ecological systems perspective on mentoring at work: A review and future prospects. Academy of Management Annals, 5, 1, 519–570. 

  8. Dennehy, T. C., & Dasgupta, N. (2017). Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s positive academic experiences and retention in engineering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(23), 5964-5969. 

  9. Pololi, L. H., & Evans, A. T. (2015). Group peer mentoring: an answer to the faculty mentoring problem? A successful program at a large academic department of medicine. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 35(3), 192-200. 

  10. Ely, R., Ibarra, H., & Kolb, D. M. (2011). Taking gender into account: Theory and design for women’s leadership development programs. The Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10, 474–493.

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