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Sponsors aren’t just for NASCAR drivers

Image: Retired NASCAR driver, Danica Patrick

Hello everyone! As you may recall from my last post, I’m working on driving diversity and inclusion in our community. While this is obviously a huge topic that will take time to make progress on, one of the methods I am starting with sharing my knowledge and research with those interested in learning more about how to do better in their own organizations and their own lives.

As I’ve done more research, I’ve learned that one of the most effective ways of increasing diversity and inclusion within an organization is through mentorship and sponsorship programs. However, these two approaches are not interchangeable. Let’s start with definitions.


A mentor is a person with more experience or knowledge who provides guidance to a person with less experience or knowledge. Note the key word in this definition: guidance. This person takes a more passive, supporting role in their mentee’s career progression. They may also provide recommendations on career paths, training opportunities, and other professional growth opportunities, but for everyone else, the mentor is invisible. This person may be at any level of the organization and is typically not directly involved in the mentee’s career. The mentor can be involved for a short time in your career, helping you focus on the present (solving problems, overcoming obstacles, helping you be better at your current job); or they may be involved in the longer term, but their personal success is not necessarily connected to the mentee’s success.


Sponsorship is a much more active role, requiring that the sponsor take an active interest in the success of their protégé. The sponsor uses their clout to facilitate opportunities for that person’s career advancement. This could come in the form of opportunities to present to senior leadership, lead high visibility/high impact projects, or recommending them for promotions. The sponsor actively advocates for their protégé, treating their protégé’s success as their own. As stated in a study published in Harvard Business Review in 2011, “sponsorship is not just another promise to women on the part of those holding power: it’s a serious public statement of a leader’s commitment to equity and a measure of his accountability to change.” This obviously requires the sponsor to have a certain level of political and social capital to offer, so a sponsor is usually a senior person within an organization.  Ultimately, the sponsor is involved in the protégé’s career for the long haul. They want to be mentioned in your autobiography someday.

So, what’s the difference? Which one is better?

Firstly, let’s be clear that these two roles are not mutually exclusive. A sponsor could also be a mentor. However, sponsorship is the level of dedication that is required to help women and other marginalized groups of people to make advancements in their careers that were not available to them previously, particularly once they get to C-level promotions.

“Hey,” you say. “This sounds like it would benefit everyone. How is this a diversity issue?”

Well, my friend, the reality is that men are 46% more likely to have a sponsor than women (from that same HBR study). Sponsorship translates to an 8% increase in likelihood that a woman will ask for a stretch assignment or a raise. From a woman’s perspective there are many driving societal and cultural forces that combine to create this situation:

  • We are more focused on our needs, rather than our value
  • We are enculturated to be ‘other’-focused, resulting in a tendency to avoid appearing selfish by asking for what we deserve (pay, promotion, etc.)
  • We are afraid to be told ‘no’ and believe that our hard work should be enough to earn us those things once we prove our worth. Once told ‘no’ we are less likely to ask again.
  • We feel we need to be invited to participate, rather than assuming the invitation stands, unlike our male counterparts.

Men, for the most part, don’t subscribe to these notions. They are not afraid to ask for the promotion, the impactful project, the raise. And if they’re told no? They find another opportunity to ask again. Additionally, men in power tend to naturally seek out younger or more junior versions of themselves to sponsor (people naturally gravitate towards other people who are like them – read more). This often happens for men in informal or casual social interactions, rather than formal work settings. It may occur on the golf course, over after-hours drinks, or any other social setting that would seem innocuous to men, but that could be either intimidating, uninviting, or outright dangerous for women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other non-conforming persons.

“Dangerous?!” you say. “Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?”

Okay, I don’t really want to spend a lot of space on calling out the #MeToo movement because, well, you can Google it. But the reality is that everyday interactions between cis straight men are not so harmless to everyone else. For example, women must be careful about the social situations they find themselves in. I’ve only recently started talking about my personal experience with this publicly. About 6 years ago, before I joined SAP, I was groped under a table by a male executive from a customer company at a business dinner at a conference. My (former) boss and colleagues, all female, were at the table, but unaware. It was uninvited, unwanted, and, while I pushed his hand away, I also felt extremely confused and shocked at the situation itself, like I had somehow misrepresented or brought this on myself.

Many women are lured into social situations with a promise of networking exposure or collaboration opportunities and find themselves suddenly in an awkward, unwanted sexual or romantic situation. The worst part? They often blame themselves for misunderstanding the intention of the other person, undoubtedly someone with more power, experience, and clout than them. Or worse, when they try to redirect the interaction back to business or call out the behavior as inappropriate, they are “gaslighted” or made to feel that they are imagining the behavior or that they “sent signals” that this is what was desired from the meeting. These interactions occur across all industries and it can make out-of-the-office social networking terrifying, especially for young women.

So, when a woman is approached about a networking opportunity, she is forced to think: Is that coffee invite really about networking? Is this after-conference drink really about discussing that idea I had? Is this really a pitch meeting luncheon?

What social situations are truly “safe” for networking and, by avoiding them due to personal safety concerns, how much are women missing out on career opportunities?

(Want to learn more on this phenomenon? Check here and here for a few examples. If you’re worried you might be one of those guys who is crossing the line, this one made me laugh.)

And, for men, sponsoring or mentoring a younger woman can feel like a dangerous situation too. Spending too much time with a younger female can be misconstrued as having a sexual relationship, rather than a professional one. People may assume that the sponsor is only promoting the protégé’s career because of non-professional reasons, rather than because of her merit.  For this reason, some men avoid being in this situation altogether and focus on mentoring younger men instead.

The bottom line is, you’d be right to say that sponsorship benefits everyone, but we must also acknowledge the fact that women and other marginalized groups need formal sponsorship programs to make the commitment of their sponsor both public and safe. This creates transparency about the nature of the relationship between sponsor and protégé. It creates a safer environment for networking.  It encourages sponsors to support people who are talented and high potential and who don’t look like them. This is how we make tangible strides in improving our workplace diversity, particularly as you move up the corporate ladder.

Do you have any sponsorship programs in your organizations? Have you taken advantage of them? What have you learned? Have a great sponsor you want to give a shout-out to or a story to tell? How can we help fellow community members find sponsor relationships? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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  • I personally find that the practice of official sponsoring is something that goes against a meritocracy. Instead of striving to be the best, you strive to have the best sponsor.

    My company has mentorship programs that are obviously beneficial without the dangers of sponsorship. When we see that someone is being unofficially sponsored it is criticized as unfair hand holding, and it hurts morale.

    As for the rest I believe we should promote equality not preferencial treatment for women, which will come at a cost for men who did nothing wrong besides being born male.

    • Hi Joao,

      Sponsorship programs, and diversity programs in general, are not about preferential treatment. They are about equalizing the playing field. As I mentioned in my post, informal sponsorships already occur for men, particularly straight, white men receiving sponsorship from other straight white men who overwhelmingly hold power positions in corporations. My proposal would be to create safer spaces for women and minority groups to receive that same sponsorship opportunity.

      Interestingly, the concept of meritocracy (per the study I shared) is actually taken more to heart by women and minorities than by men who, again, already receive informal sponsorship from other men. No one wants to be the 'diversity hire.' No one wants to be seen as only getting a promotion or opportunity because they are female or a person of color or the token LGBTQ+ person. The objective is to give qualified women and minorities the same opportunities as their equally qualified male counterparts.

      I hope you can consider how helping women and minorities to also benefit from sponsorship is not mutually exclusive of men receiving sponsorship as they already do today, particularly given your statement about wanting to support equality.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!



      • Hi Jamie,

        About equalizing the playing field. Be very very careful when you want an equality of outcome as opposed to equality of opportunity. Equality of outcome has to require enforcement by law, regimes where this was a common practice have without exception resulted in atrocities.

        Also try and see things from a holistic perspective as opposed to focusing on a single piece of information, please allow me to explain this with the current situation in the Netherlands where I am from.


        In the Netherlands 23.6% of women hold top positions. So you might argue that we still have a long way to go, because 23.6 is not 50.

        However I've done some additional research using our Central Bureau of Statistics.

        Average age of a CEO is 53 years.
        90.3 % of Men at that age are employed, women 78.4%
        Men work full time (CEO is a full time job) 74% and women 23.6 percent.

        So from a holistic point of view, of the workforce who potentially can become a CEO (and I have not even figured in difference in studies between men and women roughly 37 years ago) 23.1 % women and 76.9% men.

        The only thing you can deduce from these facts is that in the Netherlands more women hold top positions than men when you do the effort to take in all relevant data.

        Another thing you have to take into account when you are talking about equality is that only pretty recently we are living in a piece of the world where men and women have the same amount of opportunities, the mother of my grandmother wasn't even allowed to vote for all of her life (since 1919).

        Please be mindful of the reality, of the fact, that things are good and are getting better, forcing equality will be detrimental.

        Kind regards, Rob Dielemans



        • Hi Rob,

          I agree that quotas are not the solution (for a variety of reasons). Sponsorship programs are about increasing opportunities for those who otherwise don't have access to those opportunities. Thank you for sharing the stats - very interesting perspective & data!


    • And how do you propose we achieve equality at no cost for men? If there are 4 slices of pizza and I get 1 and you get 3 then when you offer me one of your pieces is this a "preferential treatment" or equalization?

      Fortunately, success is not a finite resource, like pizza. 🙂 So making one more successful does not automatically make another person less successful.

        • Quantifiable success is a zero sum game. If my company says that in this fiscal year we start having quotas for female partners, I'm not getting promoted regardless of what I have done.

          It doesn't matter if I'm better then all the women, I won't get promoted, period. How is this "right"?

          • But it does refute your statement that it's not a zero sum game. Even if you forget quotas, there are finite spots for promotion at the higher levels of a company, it's not all flowers and rainbows. There is only one CEO, so if the company decides to "sponsor" a woman because they need to look good, it ends up hurting competent men.

            Merit should be the factor, not sponsorships or feminism.

          • I didn't said it was, did I? Not even close. And just because women were hurt in the past, doesn't make it ok to hurt men today, men who did nothing wrong.

            Regarless, my main point, even if you remove the male/female aspect from the discussion, is that many times there are only limited spots for advancement in a company, so it is a zero sum game. Not everyone will get promoted, even if they are all competent.

          • OK, I see your point.

            Well, all I can say that women are also not interested in being part of "lady quota" and such. But the current reality is that women simply are not (yet) afforded the same opportunities as men. (And if you want to ask "well, where is a proof of that" I'll refer you to this tweet: )

            When one category of people has been disenfranchised for a long time, it's not enough to just declare that from now on everyone is equal and mission accomplished. There will be a long (at least a generation if not longer) period when the previously disenfranchised category needs to be given a "boost" to make the equality de facto, not just de jure.

            Is it possible that such well-meaning programs will end up being abused by someone? Of course! We are human and nothing is perfect. But this does not mean that we must not even try them.

            I sure hope that the time will come eventually (not in our lifetime likely) when such programs will not be needed. And I'm sorry that you happen to live in this time period and not later (at least be happy you're not a woman in XIV century 🙂 ). But it's just the right thing to do and it needs to be done for the greater good. This is my firm belief, even as a mother of a boy. 🙂

      • If I work in a partnership, and the company results mean there is only one slot for a new partner this fiscal year, "success" is a finite resource.

  • Based on this :

    • We are more focused on our needs, rather than our value
    • We are enculturated to be ‘other’-focused, resulting in a tendency to avoid appearing selfish by asking for what we deserve (pay, promotion, etc.)
    • We are afraid to be told ‘no’ and believe that our hard work should be enough to earn us those things once we prove our worth. Once told ‘no’ we are less likely to ask again.
    • We feel we need to be invited to participate, rather than assuming the invitation stands, unlike our male counterparts.

    I'm a woman. 😉

    I like mentorship idea and I think I would not like sponsorship of any kind as it leads to abuse. Humans have a great ability to corrupt good intentions, we should not let them have that opportunity.
    Mentorship help one develop, sponsorship let's one jump on a bandwagon.

    Maybe I'm wrong - but that's what I see in real life and it is wrong for anyone.

    as to diversity - it cannot be truly achieved in the work place because there it is too late (this does not mean we shouldn't try !!!).

    It needs to start with kids having equal access to good education and healthcare and after-school programs. (this is not communist propaganda, I swear)

    Not to mention access to higher education based on ability, not financial status.
    This way all genders and colors will have similar representation in  all fields (adjusted to current popular trends) - since brain wise we're mostly the same.


    • Ah, you've touched a special place in my heart, Denis Konovalov ! I agree that access to quality education and healthcare are the foundation for better diversity in the workplace. However, it doesn't mean it's too late for those of us already in the field. (We can do both!) The current situation can feel insurmountable for those of us working towards a more diverse workforce, but I truly believe (and the research supports) that if we do more to help make the workplace safer, lift up others with our own success, and call out bad actors when we see them, we can make progress.

      I'm hoping you can explain some more on your thoughts on sponsorship and why you see this as a risk for abuse. Curious to get some examples. Thanks!

      • Workplace is un-even playing field due to various factors. Some are due to old institutionalized injustices (man driven cultures, racism etc.) which need to be removed/destroyed and can't be tolerated. This is where we need to focus the most, I think.

        But some are due to factors that can't be leveled without creating their own injustices. Like if we have more men in college for specific subject - then logically we will see more men in corresponding workplace and if we try to level it there - inevitably some of those men will loose (either promotions or positions) not due to their performance but due to artificial "leveling".

        (back to conversation of having level playing field from childhood and it being the root of the problem).

        Some are plain due to human nature - in general terms we tend to help our "tribe" over other one, even if we are not doing it on purpose...

        As to sponsorship - this an issue of scarce resources -not everyone can have a sponsor. So those lucky enough or cunning enough to have one will have an advantage over those who do not and just do their jobs.
        When there is that clear advantage - people will try to utilize it and get it, so there will be tensions around who gets one and who don't....
        I'm not sure that is healthy for any organization.
        As to examples - look at any dictatorship. They all start with someone sponsoring like minded people/people who share certain trends that sponsor/dictator like... eventually that group raises to power and acts like a unnatural selection process for the whole power structure in a given state.
        Success (good/evil) of sponsorship depends not on verifiable process, but on an individual who does sponsoring.

        I completely agree with "...if we do more to help make the workplace safer, lift up others with our own success, and call out bad actors when we see them, we can make progress".

        • Thanks for taking the time to respond & explain your perspective. I'm sensing a blog post on the validity of the concept of 'meritocracy' is in order 🙂

          The short of it is: the implication that men would have to 'give up' opportunities for women to take advantage of those opportunities is that the women would not be otherwise qualified for those opportunities. It's a bit akin to the "we only have male speakers at this conference because there weren't enough women who were qualified/were interested," which we know is not the case.  This issue is complex, in the sense that it will require many parts of the overall system to be corrected or addressed. A part of the solution is speaking to women (and other underrepresented people) in their language -- understanding that, for example, most women feel they need to be invited to speak/apply/participate. (There are lots of things that contribute to this feeling, which I'll be covering in future blog posts!)

          Another part is addressing the natural tendencies of humans, as you said, to support their own 'tribe,' or people who look, think, and act like they do. I think that's the role that formal sponsorship programs can play - helping people to find others outside of their tribe who are qualified and have the potential to be great, given the opportunity. Interestingly, you covered many of the same points as I did in my post 😉 For example, we know that most executive positions are still held by white men. What can we do then to help the future of those positions to be more diverse? (Why should we do this? Because we also know that there are lots of women and POCs who are more than qualified for those positions, but never make it because of systemic barriers, like the ones we're discussing.) Well, for starters, we can look to those same white men in power and say, "Hey, you didn't get there alone. How about reaching down and helping someone else up? Here's a pool of people we've identified as 'high performance' or 'high potential' that we think you could help make it to the next step of their career." (How that 'identification' happens is another question -- how do you avoid people being blocked from advancement due to their manager's biases, for example? Maybe it's by peer review? Open to ideas!)

          As an aside, there are really fantastic things happening in the not-for-profit world right now, focused on getting more young girls and POCs interested in STEM early on. (e.g. one of my favorite groups right now is Girls Who Code). Our responsibility is to create a system that continues to foster their interest (and frankly, doesn't drive them away because of sexual harassment, discrimination, assault, etc.) once they 'make it' into the field.

          • "the implication that men would have to ‘give up’ opportunities for women to take advantage of those opportunities is that the women would not be otherwise qualified for those opportunities"

            Generalisations leads to this sort of arguments, when the fact is that in some situations, this will be true in another it won't be. In some situations there will be a man that is passed over for promotion when he is the better candidate, in others there will be a woman that is indeed the better candidate.

            And if there are a lot more men, like in tech, the likelihood of the woman being the best statistically decreases. So if you force women to be promoted in a environment where they are the minority (by far) in order to achieve some sort of "equality" then this will probably happen.

            Does it mean that men are always the better candidate? No. Statistically there will be times where a woman is the better candidate. But it also means there are times when a man is the better candidate.

            "It’s a bit akin to the “we only have male speakers at this conference because there weren’t enough women who were qualified/were interested,” which we know is not the case."

            Again generalisation. How can you say for a fact that women were interested, that they were just shy? And there are a lot of men who are shy, so why do you restrict that to women? Are all women shy and all men overconfident?

            "Another part is addressing the natural tendencies of humans, as you said, to support their own ‘tribe,’ or people who look, think, and act like they do."

            The solution to men promoting other men over women, is to have women promote other women over men? That's just perpetuating the problem.

            "For example, we know that most executive positions are still held by white men. What can we do then to help the future of those positions to be more diverse?"

            Instead of striving to be more diverse for the sake of it, why not strive to have equal opportunities for access?

            I guess it should be clear by now I fundamentally disagree with you. I believe the focus should be on inclusion, not forced diversity.

          • And if there are a lot more men, like in tech, the likelihood of the woman being the best statistically decreases.

            Um, no. Most women I meet in IT are awesome on many levels for a simple reason that it takes more effort for them to make it.

          • We are not that apart, but I do not agree with this :
            "the implication that men would have to ‘give up’ opportunities for women to take advantage of those opportunities is that the women would not be otherwise qualified for those opportunities."

            That is not what I was trying to say.  Women DO qualify, but so are the men - who gets the opportunity should not be decided by the gender or color of candidate , only by their ability and desire.
            When external factors are included into this decisions - fairness suffers.
            Sponsorship in my view is that external factor.

            I think my company is close to doing it right, specially in the last couple of years. I see women who have shown their abilities are being noticed and promoted (finally). When in the past I've seen them being passed over.....
            I also see more women come in from colleges to our teams and they are brilliant - so the change is happening, I don't think we need to force it. Natural equilibrium will happen with equal access.

          • The good news is that we're all advocating for the same thing: equal access to opportunity.

            No one here is talking about diversity quotas (promoting for the sake of diversity). We're talking about increasing access to sponsorship, which is already available to white men.

            It sounds like 'meritocracy' would be a good topic for my next blog, as there are a lot of misconceptions here that "working hard" is enough for women and minorities to get promoted at the same rate as their equally qualified white male counterparts.

          • In the end of the day we are not advocating the same thing. The difference is the following:

            • Strive for inclusion (what I defend): Promote everyone according to their performance, not race or gender. Each company does this, and on average the population of "CEOs" will average at about the same distribution as the general population with obvious corrections for access to higher education;
            • Strive for diversity (what you defend): Each company tries to be "diverse" which will ultimately lead to a distortion in minority CEOs as it will be unlikely that each company by itself can be "diverse" without going against statistics.

            When you strive for inclusion, diversity will come as a result. If you strive for diversity, you will get injustices, because the minorities may not actually be the better candidates in some situations. The "white man" may indeed deserve it sometimes.

            And if it is only the "white men" that have sponsorships or opportunities, I would like you to explain the disproportionate number of asians on the top of technology companies of the US. They do it without sponsorship? Just the white man that need it?

            Stop using "white men" to get your point across. The "white man" of the today are not the "white men" that created todays unbalances. It just makes it hard for us "white man" to relate, when you are basically implying we "got it easy".

          • Hi Joao,

            I'm actually pretty clear on what I mean by diversity and inclusion - and there's a reason they're typically stated together. You cannot have one without the other and be successful in creating a more equal opportunity workplace. And, as I've stated repeatedly, diversity for the sake of diversity is not what I'm advocating for.  Inclusion in the context of a proposal for formal sponsorship programs means intentionally creating opportunities for those who may not otherwise have had them.  Note the word: opportunities. People who take advantage of such programs still have to perform. They have to prove that they are worthy of a promotion or progression. Their work still must speak for itself, BUT they are not starting the race at a 500m disadvantage.

            I think it is disingenuous to assume that the issues we face in adversity today are simply the result of our father's actions, so to speak. The data is pretty clear on the ongoing systemic oppression of women and minorities across various measurements (hire rates, promotion rates, workplace harassment and assault, etc.). The data shows that things are particularly bad for women of color.

            If we don't acknowledge the problems, we cannot solve them. The sheer reality is that men, particularly white men, do better in the current system because they have less barriers. I read something particularly poignant the other day: "white privilege doesn't mean that you have not had a hard life; it just means that your skin color isn't one of the factors making it harder."

            I understand the feeling of being 'attacked' and that is definitely not my intention. There is a lot of bad media around being a white guy today. It's easy to feel defensive.  But when it comes to solving these problems, we have to be able to talk, as white people, about the lack of barriers that just may have given us a step ahead of our non-white colleagues. We need to get comfortable with our discomfort. We need to understand that striving for a better work environment for everyone means we're going to be uncomfortable sometimes with acknowledging that the system in place today still serves the status quo. It's the only way we make progress.