Mentorship isn’t enough to build equity — which makes sponsorship essential

April 4, 2024


The best female college basketball athletes — many of them seniors — across the U.S. are looking forward to competing at Final Four weekend in just a few weeks. Soon after, several will graduate, and I am energized by the possibilities for their careers ahead, whether that is competing in the WNBA or pursuing careers and passions outside of basketball.

Many of us can recall similar moments in life: beginning a new chapter, uncertain of how to navigate it all and how to get ahead. Reflecting back on the coaches, mentors and managers in our careers, those most memorable were connected to our defining moments — the new opportunity, the key introduction, or the big leadership opportunity we worked hard for.

Data reported just last year stated that 84% of Fortune 500 companies are using mentorship programs. Formal programs are important and effective, defined by a relationship between someone sharing knowledge and guidance (the mentor) and someone learning from their experience (mentee). The tenets of mentorship for women are significant, as companies who offer them are more profitable; and when combined with a female CEO, those companies better weather economic downturns.

However, mentorships can’t do it all — and certainly can’t fully correct the imbalance of structural inequities for women in sports or the workplace. Having a mentor increased the likelihood of a promotion for men two years later, but had no effect on promotion for women. And mentorship can be insular, focusing entirely on the woman’s self improvement (often more than men) rather than the structure and culture of organizations themselves.

If we look for solutions where the emphasis is placed on structural change — versus women’s adaptation to those structures — sponsorship is more effective, especially for advancing women.

Images of jersey patches and valuations may come to mind first when you hear “sponsorship,” but in the context of mentorship, sponsorship refers to a higher degree of advocacy.

Defined as a relationship that may evolve from a mentorship, a sponsor is someone who promotes you to other people to help advance your career. A pithy way to remember the distinction is this: “Mentors talk to you. Sponsors talk about you to powerful people when you aren’t in the room.” Sponsorship involves action and elevates mentorship.

In fact, it’s only when you deepen your mentorship efforts to include a degree of sponsorship — to have more impact on your mentee’s career — can your organization advance gender equality.

It’s not an instant shift. You must intentionally apply specific aspects of sponsorship into mentorship efforts to upgrade those programs and advance equality for women.

Sponsorship as Connector

Mentorship helps mentees connect the dots to ideas and strategies for success — but usually stops at introducing new relationships. It’s one-to-one, but that provides limited perspective.

Sponsorship creates one-to-many connections. The difference is looking within your own network, inside your organization and outside, and connecting other leaders personally to your sponsee. Essentially, open as many doors as you can for them.

Personally connect your sponsee to strategic relationships and leverage your own influence to improve your sponsee’s reputation. For example, sharing a post on your LinkedIn that highlights your sponsee’s accomplishments and puts them on your peers’ radar that this is a person to watch. This is especially important for historically underrepresented or marginalized groups.

Sponsorship as Opportunity Provider

Mentors are great at strategizing around opportunities, giving valuable advice for self-improvement gained throughout their own careers — but typically don’t go much further.

The sponsorship distinction means actively going beyond advice to providing high-visibility projects or opportunities.

Solicit creative solutions from your sponsee for a current project you’re involved in or ask them to sit in on an important meeting. Suggesting your sponsee for an appropriate role or position is a great way to vouch for them and their future success. By being both an exemplary leader in your industry and someone who unlocks meaningful opportunities, you open the door for women and create a more accessible environment.

Sponsorship as Advocate

A mentor is an incredibly important support line throughout your career; from negotiation tips to interview best practices, mentors help navigate the twists and turns in professional development. However, they typically cheer from the sidelines.

Sponsorship takes the sentiment of guidance into action by advocating for sponsees in direct ways. Write a personal recommendation, place them on the shortlist, or include them as your “plus one” to relevant events. Giving your sponsee the relevant lay of the land as you help them level up is also important. Opening doors is one thing; now explain to them how the room works.

In our collective efforts toward gender equality across all industries, mentorship is just the baseline. When you augment the guidance of mentorship with the direct action of sponsorship you carve out space for more women to be in the right places, at the right times — especially in male-dominated industries such as sports.

As I think about the broad shoulders I stand on, many of which belong to strong women, I know the power of active sponsorship — and encourage you to elevate the support that will correct imbalance in our workplace and culture.


Michelle Jordan is chief diversity officer at AT&T. This piece is crafted in partnership with The Collective Think Tank, a global consortium of academic minds and industry leaders focused on gender parity and improving diversity. The collaboration is led by The Collective, Wasserman’s women-focused division.

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