A graphic for the definition for Sponsors

What is a sponsor and why are they important for women in the workplace?

Whilst many conflate sponsors with mentors, sponsors go further in their support for an individual. In a one-way process, they publicly advocate for others that they back, helping them progress in the organisation. This support can be through, for example, championing those they sponsor to receive a promotion or helping them find or obtain an opportunity for stretch assignments. But research indicates that an authentic relationship is essential for sponsorship to be effective, with trust developed through a genuine bond with the sponsor.

Professor Ibarra of London Business School has studied mentors and sponsors concerning women’s workplace progression. She shows that in mentoring, women can become overwhelmed with competing demands from their mentor and employer. Sponsorship goes further because the sponsor uses their position and influence to steer their sponsee towards new opportunities they couldn’t generally access.  

However, women must have senior-level sponsors to open up otherwise gatekept opportunities. In mentorship programmes which include sponsorship, men are more likely to be mentored by senior executives (78%) compared to women (69%). And women are almost twice as likely to be sponsored by a non-manager or a first-level manager than men. This imbalance, recorded by Ibarra, is detrimental to the success of programmes for women. 

For women of colour, who are even more significantly underrepresented than white women in leadership positions, sponsorship is arguably more important. Research discussed by Harvard Business Review found that when Black employees have a sponsor, the likelihood of leaving within a year is reduced by 60%. Furthermore, Black managers are 65% more likely to be promoted with the support of a sponsor. 

Sponsorship can enable women to navigate workplace biases such as the Motherhood Penalty, Sticky Floors and Glass Ceilings. It is critical to close the Gender Pay Gap and increase the number of women of colour in senior positions and promote better diversity of senior teams. 

Related Concepts

Sticky Floors

Glass Ceiling

The Motherhood Penalty

Related Research

To find out more about women’s career progression and the barriers they face please read ECC’s summary of Insead’s paper ‘Taking Gender into Account‘.

Related Resources

ECC’s explainer ‘Designing development programmes for women‘ expands on the benefits of sponsorship for women. 

Click here to learn more about Women’s Development Programmes: 6 Lessons from Designing Women’s Development Programmes

Click here to learn more about Inclusive Leadership: Intro to Developing Inclusive Leaders