This question comes from the CEO of a public film institute, where Tinna is working with the film consultants in co-creating changes in their decision-making processes to ensure more diversity. The film institute has increased their DEI efforts and as part of these effort, a question came up about the difference between sponsorship and mentorship and why that distinction matters. That’s what this blog post addresses.

Dear Lisa & Tinna,

Why sponsor and not mentor women and other underrepresented groups?
Thank you.

Great question! Why is that?

Here is some practical advice on how to design solutions that fix the problem and not maintain it.

Given that most inequalities are due to structural barriers, mentoring people from under-represented groups is usually not the solution needed. Often, they do have the skills and are not in need of the development aspect that mentoring offers. Instead, the needed solution is sponsorship.

Women and other under-represented people tend to be over-mentored but under-sponsored. This dynamic was called out years ago by CatalystSylvia Ann Hewlett, and others. Yet, the pattern continues today in many organisations with significant implications for career opportunities. It’s important that we use differentiated and targeted solutions.

Here are some differences between mentoring and sponsoring
Mentoring involves someone talking to you for knowledge sharing, while sponsorship involves someone with position and power talking about you to decision makers at the critical moments for career advancement and opportunities allocation.

What is Mentoring

Mentoring is a learning and development approach to be used for increasing knowledge and skill capacity building. Learning from someone who is skilled can be very powerful, especially if the mentor is a respected leader.

Mentoring programs are ideally structured around key competencies valued by the organisation.

Some absurd challenges and barriers

When it comes to intentions to increase diversity in leadership and key roles, mentoring tends to be the automatic reaction. However, in our work, and that of many other change makers, we have found several challenges with mentoring programs tied to diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI). Some of these are below.

  • Fix you, not us. The mentee is selected to get a mentor or be in the mentoring program from a ‘deficit’ view—that is, they are seen as missing some vital skills, and thus need advice or help from someone more experienced to develop these.

    This is often the case for two groups of employees—new hires and women and people from minority groups (even when people in this latter group already have many years of experience). Mentoring often makes sense for new hires or young talent. But mentoring as a solution for advancing women and minority-represented people reveals an implicit association of ‘not skilled’ or ‘needs development’, and reduces the focus away from the systemic issues that need to be fixed to ensure equity. It is always easier to look for ‘fault’ in others than within ourselves and the organisations we lead or have our identities tightly affixed to. This is a cognitive fallacy called the blindspot bias. A false sense of security of ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ can absurdly blind us to the harmful conditions our thinking and actions are sustaining.

    What leader wants to intentionally create a psychologically unsafe team?
  • The over-mentoring trap for ‘diverse’ people. Women and people from minority-represented groups tend to be in a cycle of always offered a mentor or a spot in a mentoring program rather than a promotion. They are considered as the ‘diverse’ people when in reality we are all diverse. We all have diverse needs and prerequisites for advancing in our workplaces and careers, and that is what the solutions need to consider. That’s why it important to differentiate between the needs that mentoring and sponsoring target.

    Underlying this pattern of continuous mentoring of people from these groups are attempts to somehow ‘fix’ them so they ‘fit in’ better, ensuring that the majority feel ‘more comfortable’ with them, and thus they may then be seen as ‘more promotable’. This masks bias in the organisation and decision-makers. Mentoring can unconsciously force-assimilate people to be more like the majority. And when they still don’t mirror the majority, they are caught up in the cycle of ‘mentoring’.

    Mentoring has also proven to be a shield used by senior decisions-makers to not appoint people with minority backgrounds and identities to senior roles by offering the excuse of “Let’s offer them mentoring. They’re just not ready yet.” This gives decision makers ‘moral license’ of having done ‘something for diversity’ but without making objective decisions on all people in the talent pool. This is an example of performative allyship and poor leadership.

    The results are that women and minorities are often over-mentored with no valuable outcomes. And leaders continue the same past patterns (systemic norms and biased decision-making) of not accessing the full potential in their staff

    What leader would want this? What organisation can afford this?
  • Short-term transactional rather than long-term relational. When mentoring is part of a formalised mentor program in an organisation often the mentoring ends when the program ends. Mentoring is a perceived as a ‘task’ to be completed by the mentor, squeezed into their overloaded calendar. It is centred on a topic or few topics, the mentor shares their experience over a couple of meetings with the mentee, and then the program concludes. Missing by design are longer-term personal investment, commitment, and advocacy in the mentee’s career.
  • Nowhere to go next. The expectations of mentees are often that completion of a mentoring program should be a pathway to opportunities to utilise their newly acquired skills. However, rarely is this the case.

When Lisa first joined one of her former organisations, she was told proudly about a women’s mentoring program that had been ‘successfully’ running for five years. When she asked about what constituted ‘success’, the only measure was the number of women who had been through it. There was no tracking of career moves of the mentees. This is an example of ‘measuring the irrelevant’. When analysis was done, there was found some career movement—that of women (former mentees) leaving the company due to career progression frustration.

In addition to the above, mentoring programs can also have the effect of limiting these types of development conversations and networking to just a few participants.
If an organisation wants to have a learning culture and one where leaders show they care about all their staff, then wouldn’t mentoring be the norm for all?

What is Sponsorship

Sponsorship is a career and opportunities promotion approach to be used during talent selection moments and when allocating key assignments.

While mentoring involves someone talking to you, sponsorship involves someone talking about you and advocating for your skills, competences, performance, potential, and achievements to decision makers at the critical moments for career advancement.

Sponsorship in actions
Sponsorship can take many forms, as Professor Herminia Ibarra outlines in this article which covers a spectrum of commitment.

The benefits of sponsorship
Sponsorship is an engaged action that create equal opportunities based on merit and can directly influence the diversity composition of the organisation. Sponsorship is about seeing and getting to know the many talented people in the organisation or sector rather than only those already in the inner circle. Sponsorship by senior members in powerful positions is an example of honourably using one’s privilege for inclusion and equity of all. In effect, sponsorship is a win-win-win for the sponsor, the protegee, and the organisation. Who wouldn’t want that?

Some challenges of motivating engagement
Yet, many do not know about the negative consequences of mentoring when so strongly associated with DEI initiatives. And many still may not have heard of sponsorship. While you can tell people about the difference, motivating people to become sponsors and participate in a formal program to learn how to be a successful sponsor is another thing. Often you will have to help people see and feel the need.

How you can get people engaged as sponsors
So, how can we, as change makers, have an honest discussion about meritocracy tied to mentoring and sponsorship? In our work, we’ve been at this point many times and sparking the discussion by showing (not telling) about inequalities within the culture through its systems, the decisions, and the behaviours is a powerful way to start.

Here are some motivational Inclusion Nudges to inspire how to do this.

  • ‘Walk the Line’ to Engage in Sponsorship Programs in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and in Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies
  • Seeing Those Not Seen & Sponsoring Them in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and also in Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies
  • How Diverse is Your Network Inner Circle? in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and also Inclusion Nudges for Leaders
  • And there are many more in the Inclusion Nudges guidebooks

Here are some more related Inclusion Nudges blog articles to inspire you:
Ask Lisa & Tinna: How to Spark a Discussion on Meritocracy?
Data as a Catalyst for Designing Change
Ally by Actions – Not by Posting on Social Media

Thank you for asking the question.

Got a question about Inclusion Nudges and how to use these designs to achieve your diversity, equity, & inclusion initiatives?

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Questions will be slightly edited to fit the posting and for confidentiality as needed.