Organizations Can Use Sponsorship to Achieve Gender Equality

Topic(s): diversity, fairness, gender
Publication: Harvard Business Review (2010)
Article: Why men still get more promotions than women
Authors: H. Ibarra, N.M. Carter, C. Silva
Reviewed by: Liz Brashier

In a corporate climate in which women’s progression to the upper tiers of management is the current “hot topic” in diversity, it would seem that mentoring programs might be the solution. Pairing high potential women with executive mentors, it would appear, would lead to promotions. However, the authors (Ibarra, Carter, &, Silva, 2010) argue that it is the quality of the mentoring that really matters here – and not all mentoring is created equal. There is actually a special type of mentoring, called sponsorship, that makes all the different in those promotions to upper-level roles.


Sponsorship is important in that the mentor is not just providing feedback for the mentee, but is going above and beyond to use his or her influence; in sponsorship, the mentor advocates with senior executives on behalf of the mentee.

Sponsorship is important in the gender discussion. Typically, mentoring relationships lead to promotions for male employees because they are sponsored in addition to being mentored. However, mentoring relationships are leading to significantly less promotion for women because the sponsorship element tends to be absent from the equation.


So, how can an organization implement an effective sponsorship program? The authors provide a five-step approach:

1) Ask if the program is about mentoring (i.e., advice and feedback) or about sponsorship (i.e., promotions). Determine and then communicate the intent of the program.

2) Consider program goals, and then select and pair sponsors and high potential women in keeping with those goals.

3) Get direct supervisors involved, and don’t let the sponsorship program appear to be coming only from HR.

4) Educate sponsors on gender and leadership – women not only have different needs, but the leadership styles that earn men promotions don’t always work for women.

5) Hold sponsors accountable for those promotions; set a timeline for when the mentees need to be ready for promotions, and then hold the sponsors to it.

Lastly, while the benefits of sponsorship may result in faster promotions for high potential women, it certainly cannot be considered a final step in closing the gender gap in advancement in the workplace. It is, however, an important and potentially effective first step.


Ibarra, H., Carter, N. M., & Silva, C. (2010). Why men still get more promotions than women. Harvard Business Review, 11, 80–85.