On the heels of the year anniversary since Susan Fowler blew the whistle about her experiences of being sexually harassed at Uber, LeanIn.Org has announced #MentorHer, a campaign calling on men to mentor women. Recent data suggests that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a growing number of men may now be uncomfortable or reluctant to engage in common work activities with women, including mentoring, working alone, or socializing together. Thus, the campaign is an effort to re-engage men in the solution and highlight the benefits of mentoring for women’s career success.
Yet, in emphasizing mentoring, there is an important distinction that is masked by this campaign that fails to highlight the critical (and perhaps more important role) of a related concept — sponsorship. What’s the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and why does it matter? A mentor is someone who will offer their mentee career guidance and support, be an active listener, and provide counsel for typical career challenges. While important, these are all relatively low profile, low stakes behaviors, as they can often occur privately or without visibility to others.
A sponsor is different. This is someone who will not only offer advice, but also leverage their own social capital to help their protégés in a number of important ways, whether by offering challenging work assignments or putting the subordinate’s name forward for promotion. In either case, the sponsor attaches their reputation and resources to the protégé in a way that makes this more risky for the sponsor. If the subordinate fails, then to some extent, the sponsor does too. There’s an argument to be made that mentoring is necessary but not sufficient for women to really achieve at the highest levels, and research published in 2011 by Harvard Business Review supports this idea. Compared to women without sponsors, women with sponsors are more satisfied with their rate of advancement and are more likely to ask managers for stretch assignments and for a raise in pay.
Knowing this research and the benefits of sponsorship, why are we talking about #MentorHer instead of #SponsorHer? It’s because sponsorship would really require organizations to rethink the way they advocate for and make decisions about female talent. And with any social movement, the change is going to be gradual. As a professor of human resource management and researcher of harassment for the past 10 years, I applaud any effort that helps women advance in the workplace. Yet, if the goal is really to see more women promoted into upper management, I would also argue that it’s not simply about encouraging men to step up, it’s really about whether the leadership of any organization expects more and is willing to hold people accountable for their behavior.
For example, when women are harassed at work, the HR reporting structures and policies should not be what get in the way. HR needs to actually support victims by ensuring that those who report harassment and mistreatment receive a timely, fair investigation and that the harassers, if found in violation of policy, face the consequences. It also means putting HR in a position to have some legitimate power and influence, instead of being viewed as the arm of the organization that people run to only when they have a problem or are afraid of a lawsuit.
More importantly, it means reevaluating what organizations value when it comes to employee behavior and job outcomes. This calls into question the very heart of an organization’s mission and values – does it value money and performance over the way its female employees are treated? That certainly seems to be the case for someone like Harvey Weinstein who was able to wreak havoc on countless careers all while the Weinstein Company made millions of dollars. This not only calls on HR and top management to do what’s right, but for corporate boards to take a stand on the behaviors they value, and those that they don’t.
For example, despite numerous reports from employees dating back quite some time, the corporate board of Wynn Resorts seemed reluctant to force the resignation of Steve Wynn, while within the same 24 hour period, lululemon’s board quickly exited CEO Laurent Potdevin after allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a female employee came to light. In the press release describing the action, Executive Chairman Glenn Murphy states, “protecting the organization’s culture is one of the Board’s most important duties.”
To be sure, this entire conversation requires organizations to openly and honestly discuss gender and equity in the workplace – the veritable third rail for many companies these days. Yet, data suggests that 25% of employees feel the recent media reports have uncovered only the tip of the iceberg on this issue, and only half of companies have started to take action against harassers, update policies, or provide new training. Thus, we still have a long way to go. However, if guided by the research on sponsorship and the career supports that will best advance women in the workplace over the long term, this conversation has the potential to be less about stopping harassment and more about changing the culture and power balance in organizations for good.
About the author: Jaclyn M. Jensen, Ph.D. is faculty director, Master of Science in Human Resources, Department of Management & Entrepreneurship, Richard H. Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University