You may have heard the advice to move your mentor to the side and seek a sponsor: That trusted go-to leader that advocates for you when you’re not around, whether that’s for a prominent project, a significant salary bump, or a powerful promotion. Sponsorship has long been touted as a way to close gender gaps in the workplace, able to advance careers, narrow the pay gap, bring in innovative ideas, and eventually lead more women to the executive suite. No wonder, then, why executives motivated to create opportunities for women at work are eager to start with sponsorship, especially for underrepresented groups.
But newly-published research in the Academy of Management Discoveries suggests that not all sponsorships are created equal: Sponsors themselves face gender biases, too.
There’s a gendered difference in whose sponsorship works
To study the relationship between sponsorship and gender, researchers looked at hiring records for US Supreme Court law clerks. Law clerks underpin the judicial process in courtrooms across the country, but none more powerfully than in the nation’s highest: They might prepare briefs on consequential cases, draft decisions for the nation’s justices, and wield influence in high-profile rulings. For ambitious law school graduates, attaining a prestigious clerkship can unlock the gate to a high-powered legal career. But landing the role relies, often, on sponsorship.
“Success in the application process for these elite early-career positions is contingent on having a strong recommendation from a judge with which the candidate has previously worked,” the researchers write, “making it ideal to study gender differences in the effectiveness of referrals.”
To evaluate the impact of gender on sponsorship, researchers separated these referrals and the ultimate hires across gender lines—and found that not all sponsorships are weighted equally. Their ultimate conclusion: Overall, candidates who are recommended by women are less likely to get hired than those who are recommended by men. Sponsorships, at least in the big picture, are more powerful if they come from men.
The good news for women-led sponsorship
Thankfully, some circumstances can narrow the sponsorship gap. The study unearthed one factor that can help women recommend women more effectively: Tenure. The more senior a woman sponsor was, the researchers found, the more likely the women they recommended were to be hired.
In fact, the research found that female job applicants who were recommended or referred by long-tenured women were the most likely to be hired. (Tenure had no positive effect on any other gender pairings, like women recommending men and men recommending men or women.) Women in higher or longer-lasting levels of leadership were much more effective in their sponsorship. But why?
“Growing awareness of gender inequalities may explain this,” said Elizabeth L. Campbell, assistant professor of management at the University of California San Diego and lead author of the study in a statement. “People now better appreciate how challenging it is for women to reach high levels of rank and tenure in their careers, relative to men. Knowing it was harder for women to get to the same place as their male peers changes the assumptions people make about those women who have achieved seniority in their fields.”
In effect, the researchers theorize, seniority might make women credible in a way it doesn’t for men—especially, in fields where gender gaps persist and women leaders are exceptions to the status quo. These women, they write, are “seen as uniquely qualified” to identify junior-level women as exceptional, too.
So what can women in leadership do with that power? Senior and high-ranking women, the researchers add, should use that unique influence to sponsor women up the ranks. As for junior women who want to ascend, the findings suggest it can pay off to seek out executive women, rather than men, for mentorship and sponsorship.
“Organizations still need to do their part in trying to eliminate bias from formal hiring and promotion processes,” Campbell added. “But informal advocacy will continue to play a role in hiring decisions, and our research suggests successful female leaders can wield influence in this domain to help talented junior women advance in their career.”