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Navigating the Path to Leadership: Sponsorship vs. Mentorship for Women in High-Level Positions

I was listening to a great podcast this week and it was a roundtable discussion with 3 successful women. A portion of the conversation was a discussion on mentorships and sponsorships. I was not sure what the difference was and as I continued to listen, I became so much more intrigued by this.

They discussed that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored when compared to men. This means that women have a harder time advancing in their careers. I know this may seem like, "well duh, women are undervalued, underpaid and so much more, this should be a no-brainer" But when our society has us engrained in this mentality it is hard to see the bigger picture sometimes. So, what is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?

Mentorships are where someone is providing guidance, advice, and support based on their expertise. Sponsorships are where the sponsor is actively advocating for that individual's career and advancements within an organization. They are the people who are going to say your name when they are looking to fill an important role. They are your promoters essentially.

The Harvard Business Review did an article on this topic in 2019 that states, "The similarity principle – which affects all workplace relationships — is even stronger when it comes to sponsorship because the stakes are higher. Sponsorship is a kind of helping relationship in which senior, powerful people use their clout to talk up, advocate for, and place a more junior person in a key role. While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you. When it comes to this important distinction, the evidence is also clear: women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored."

Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior, at London Business School states, “This disparity in access to critical roles may be compounded, or perhaps caused, by differences in women’s and men’s relationships with executives who can provide access to those jobs. Here human nature creates an uneven playing field: People’s tendency to gravitate to those who are like them on salient dimensions such as gender increases the likelihood that powerful men will sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise.”

We need both sponsorship and mentorship as women but the playing field needs to be leveled out more. You can mentor someone all day, but what are you able to do as another female to get women higher up the ladder? Provide more opportunities. If you are a women in a higher-level position, open the door. Invite them into the bigger conversations, and allow them to be. Even in very small businesses, we can offer sponsorships to other women. Connect other women. If you have a conversation with someone and they tell you they are looking for a particular role for someone, always be thinking about who that perfect person could be within your network. This idea of sponsorship does have to always come from the top corporations in the United States. Each decision, conversation, and connection we make impacts the "ripple." It may be small now, but you are helping make waves.

Be a mentor, but also be a sponsor and help women get to those higher-level positions!

Written by:

Dr. Ariel Blackburn

Chiropractor and Business Consultant for female holistic health providers




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