Why Mentorship and Sponsorship are Critical to Women’s Success
Why Mentorship and Sponsorship are Critical to Women’s Success

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, women’s representation in the workplace has improved, according to a 2021 study released by McKinsey & Company. And yet, women are promoted at lower rates than men. The problem? An overwhelming lack of career support, networking opportunities and training programs hinder women's workplace advancement.

In my experience as a DEI manager for one of the biggest tech companies in the world, and as a woman of color, I see a lot of success. I also see a lot of failure around career inequities. In particular, women tend to get a lot of career advice but not enough career access.

One way to address this gap is through mentorship and sponsorship programs. “What’s the difference?”, you might be thinking. Let’s get into it, as well as the best ways to find mentors and sponsors and how to ensure that your relationship is successful.

Differences Between Mentorship and Sponsorship

Mentorship: A mentorship is where someone advises you and helps you plan your career. Mentorship can happen through structured or unstructured meetings where the mentor and mentee discuss problems and proposed solutions. For instance, if you’re re-entering the workplace, a mentor can help you understand the culture, give you return-to-work tips and coach you on negotiating equal pay. You need a mentor that speaks to you. 

Sponsorship: A sponsorship is where someone advocates for you and helps you advance your career. Sponsorship can happen through forwarding jobs from their employer or network where they have some influence, suggesting stretch projects and advocating for your promotion with decision-makers. For example, if you’re in a role you’re overqualified for, a sponsor can connect you to decision-makers, draw attention to your skills and fight for your appropriate leveling. You need a sponsor that speaks about you. 

Types of Mentorships and Sponsorships

Another benefit of mentors and sponsors is that they expose us to people unlike ourselves, such as people from different generations, races, ethnicities and professional levels. Here are three different types of mentorship and sponsorship programs worth exploring. 

1.  Reverse Mentorship

Reverse mentorship is a relationship where the benefits of mentorship flow both ways. For example, senior professionals can and should learn from junior professionals, white men can and should learn from people of color and Americans can and should learn from non-Americans.

2.  Multiple Mentorships

Multiple mentorships are an approach where more than one person offers advice, access and provides various perspectives that are critical to success. After all, the experiences of a white man in the workplace are different from the experiences of a Black woman in the workplace. 

3. Needs-Based Sponsorship

A needs-based sponsorship is a method of deciding who needs support based on data and pre-determined criteria. In some cultures, it is acceptable to ask others for help, while in others, it isn’t. We can be more equitable by offering mentorship and sponsorship opportunities to people through creating structured sponsor programs where everyone has a chance to apply for what they need or match-making sponsor-sponsee pairs.

Things to Consider When Searching for Mentors and Sponsors

Let’s look at current workplace dynamics and how to find the support to succeed.

1. Find Someone with a Different Background

Challenge: Research shows we often gravitate toward working with people like ourselves, known as mini-me proteges. In 2019, Bloomberg released a study that said 71 % of executives with mentees say they’re of the same race and gender as them. While finding someone like them works well for white men, it isn’t always possible for women of color who occupy 4% of the C-Suite.

Solution: When looking for a mentor or sponsor, approach people with diverse backgrounds. Let them know how you can learn from each other and offer to develop a partnership to create a more balanced representation of leaders in your organization.

2. Push for Exposure to Leaders in the Workplace

Challenge: Hard work is not the single determinant of career success. Management consultant Harvey J. Coleman says career success stems from PIE: 10% performance (skills and results), 30% image (style and reputation) and 60% exposure (visibility to leadership and networks).

Solution: Approach your mentors and sponsors about what you could accomplish with their support and ask to shadow them in spaces and places where you don’t have access to showcase your skills.

3. Market your Lived Experiences

Challenge: Often, employers recruit people with traditional work backgrounds. We’re only beginning to figure out how to value professional and personal experiences and hire for culture add instead of cultural fit.

Solution: Share your lived experiences, soft skills and life lessons with your mentors and sponsors that allow you to bring tremendous value to the workplace, such as parenthood, moving to a new country or making a career transition.

How to Ensure Mentorship and Sponsorship is Effective

All parties must be committed for mentorship and sponsorship programs to be effective. Studies show that 25 % of employees enrolled in mentorship programs had a salary-grade change. Likewise, mentees get promoted five times more often than people without mentors and mentors get promoted six times more often than people without mentees.

Once you find a mentor or sponsor, here are three ways to ensure the programs are successful.

1. Set up monthly meetings even if you have nothing to update the person on

2. Create a plan A, B and C, so you have alternatives if your first strategy for success doesn’t work out. 

3. Discuss the different realities you face because of race, gender and other identities

DEI is about challenging our current way of doing things and introducing new and innovative ways of doing things that welcome people from all backgrounds. It is about big picture thinking but also tactical implementation. When we talk about creating a diverse workplace, equitable practices, inclusive culture — mentorship and sponsorship are two of the most effective ways we can commit to this work

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Author Diya Khanna

Diya Khanna

Guest writer Diya Khanna is a global diversity, equity, inclusion consultant with 20 years experience working in Canada, Singapore, Germany, India, and US in the Seattle area. She worked at Amazon where she led CORE+, an annual conference for 1.3 million employees and is now the founder of Global IDEA with a focus on cultural intelligence. 

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