Do sponsor-protégé relationships really promote diversity?

I’m intrigued, slightly surprised, that ‘sponsoring’ is seen as a progressive solution for workforce diversity. In her generally excellent book on gender equality interventions, Iris Bohnet advocates not just mentoring but more active sponsorship to help women progress their careers.[1] A new book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, which carries several high profile endorsements, takes a similar line.[2]

A main justification is that sponsorship is a fact of organisational life anyway, whether as a formal or (more normally) informal arrangement, and benefits dominant groups (especially white men). From this it’s argued that encouraging disadvantaged or minority groups to get sponsors is necessary to level the playing field and address this inequality.

I would argue it’s dangerous to position sponsoring as a D&I solution. It's favouritism and stands to reproduce inequality, not solve it.

The norm for sponsoring relationships is senior managers pick or accept protégés they have an instinctive affinity with; perhaps who make them feel like their younger selves, for example. This immediately looks like a process that’s potentially riddled with bias. There is good research to show that inequality develops and is reinforced through subtle means. Decisions about who seems vaguely ‘suitable’ for a role can be based on highly subjective judgements, even on things like accent and dress sense.[3] [4]

So sponsoring promotes a climate where progression is based on subjective judgements and exclusive relationships. A practice that will help a few but hamper inclusion more widely.

Once a protégé is selected, the sponsor advocates them and gives them preferential treatment. This happens to some extent irrespective of the protégé’s ongoing performance and partly blinded to the growing talent of others. It undermines commitments to fairness and reinforces a fixed mind set of talent. These problems do not exist with coaching or mentoring.

A counter argument in support of sponsorship is that it is such a strongly embedded feature of organisational life that it is here to stay; in effect, if you can’t beat them, join them. I’d say there are risks in fighting fire with fire. We desperately need more role models from disadvantaged and minority groups but there are better ways of getting them. We need to increase diversity in ways that don't invite individual bias.

Sponsor-protégé relationships are clearly integral to how many organisations work, but that doesn’t mean we have to replicate them. I’d propose we find the political will to challenge pernicious practices that hold inequalities in place and take care not to legitimise them. I do think we can be ambitious in changing entrenched culture, especially if we hold fast to principles like fairness and inclusion. Let’s champion coaching and mentoring, not partisan sponsorship.

P.S. My terms of reference are:

  • Coaching is a form of non-directive learning that can be led by any suitably skilled consultant or colleague who need not be speaking from a position of seniority.
  • Mentoring typically is done by a senior manager who imparts advice as well as facilitating non-directive learning (and ‘reverse’ mentoring involves more junior colleagues helping more senior colleagues learn).
  • Sponsorship, also conducted by more senior level managers, involves mentoring but also advocating selected employees and channelling opportunities their way. Thus as well as a tool for learning, it involves senior managers giving their ‘protégés’ preferential treatment and influencing decisions to advance their careers.

The CIPD report, D&I practice that works: an evidence-based view, will be published in October.


[1] Bohnet, I. (2016). What works: gender equality by design

[2] Hewlett, S.A. (2019). (Forget a mentor) Find a sponsor.

[3] Ashley, Louise; Empson, Laura. Understanding social exclusion in elite professional service firms : field level dynamics and the ‘professional project’. Work, Employment and Society, Vol. 31, No. 2, 01.04.2017, p. 211-229.

[4] Ashley, L. (2010). Making a difference? The use (and abuse) of diversity management at the UK’s elite law firms. Work, Employment and Society, 24(4), 711–727.

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