In Honor of International Women’s Day, Be (or Find) a Sponsor

March 7, 2019

By Kate Cavanaugh

We’ve all failed at our New Year Resolutions. But in honor of International Women’s Day, Women’s World Banking encourages everyone to try this resolution: Be (or Find) a Sponsor. But first you need to know the difference between sponsorship and mentorship.

People often talk about the importance of mentors in their careers, but fewer call out sponsors and fewer still can distinguish between the two. While a mentor can be a colleague in any position who offers support and advice, a sponsor is a senior-level staff member with a vested interest in fostering a protégé (versus the more passive “mentee”). That interest manifests in active gestures—giving access to their own professional network, advocating in the room for their protégé’s promotion, offering constructive feedback on performance and goals, and championing visibility by creating opportunities. Problematically, women are significantly less likely to have sponsors than men (though it’s worth noting, sponsors are not easy to come by in the professional world, regardless of gender).

In the face of a stubborn gender gap across industries, Women’s World Banking is advocating for more sponsors on this year’s International Women’s Day because we believe it will pay dividends for years to come. If you’re a senior-level professional, look around and see if there is a less experienced woman in your office with whom you might be willing to develop a sponsorship relationship. If you are looking to advance your career but are not sure how, consider reaching out to someone more senior in your office or in your field who could open doors for you. Making that initial connection might yield a mutually beneficial and long-term bond.

Women’s World Banking’s President and CEO, Mary Ellen Iskenderian has written about her own experience with a sponsor and how it impacted her career over time:

“I was fortunate enough to have a manager who sponsored me during the time I worked for him and long afterward, even when we were no longer immediate colleagues. Like a mentor, he provided guidance and advice, but more importantly, he made an active investment in my career, recommending me for high-profile task forces, suggesting I apply for positions that were a bit of a stretch but which signaled my ambition and got my name in front of key decision makers in the organization. And he was willing to expend political capital to recommend me for positions I was eager to take on.”

Mary Ellen’s example introduces an additional and critical layer of the relationship: A sponsor is actually willing to “expend political capital,” or to really have skin in the game on behalf of their protégé.

A sponsor going out on a limb for someone involves a certain amount of reputational risk, requiring that they trust their protégé to perform. Taking the time to develop that trust and being willing to take—and accept—the risk and responsibility is a bigger commitment on both sides of the relationship.

The benefits, however, could be substantial, especially for women and women of color who continue to be underrepresented at the executive level.

While sponsorship may not be a simple, cure-all solution to professional inequity, it can increase confidence, visibility, and opportunity for women. The more women we help to succeed at higher levels, the greater gender diversity we have in organizations and the greater female representation we have at the upper echelons of the professional ladder. Sponsoring a woman, or finding someone to sponsor you, truly is better for balance.

Not sure where to start? Watch to learn more about how Women’s World Banking’s Leadership & Diversity for Innovation Program champions the sponsorship of women as a core part of its curriculum.