Mentorship and sponsorship are often used interchangeably, but the two are actually quite different. The best description I’ve heard about what differentiates the two is that a mentor is someone who will talk to you. This is someone who will offer advice, listen to you when you need an ear, give you helpful tips, offer you encouragement and help you develop your goals . For these reasons, a mentor can be incredibly helpful to your career.
A sponsor, however, is someone who will talk about you. This is someone who actively advocates on your behalf and expends their political capital to help you get to the next level. Sponsors help you to gain visibility in your workplace by helping you make strategic connections with the right people and providing you with a safety net to allow you to take risks.
Unfortunately, women are far less likely to have sponsors than men. Indeed, the 2016 Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In found that women report fewer substantive interactions with senior leaders than their male counterparts do and that this gap widens as women and men advance. Moreover, women are less likely to say that a senior leader outside their direct management chain has helped them get a promotion or challenging new assignment. This is often a result of the fact that women are more likely to rely on networks that are exclusively female. Because most senior leaders are men, women are less likely to interact with the people who have the power to help them advance.
For women to advance at the same rate as men, it is critical that they have the same level of sponsorship. Of course, a sponsor/sponsee relationship that develops organically is best. But in the absence of that, one way to help eliminate the gap in sponsorship is for workplaces to create formal sponsorship programs for high-potential women. Sponsors should not be only other women leaders, but senior men as well. They should be well trained on the the complexities of gender and implicit bias and should be held accountable for the results. A well-executed program can result in a much needed increase in women in leadership roles, creating even more opportunities for women at every stage in the pipleline.