Blog Post

Three Ways Formal Sponsorship Programs Advance Diverse Talent

By Casey Russo
February 8, 2022

For companies interested in advancing diverse talent within their organizations to develop more diverse leadership teams, implementing a formal sponsorship program can be a critical step. Whereas mentorships focus on help that mentors can provide on a personal level, such as guidance, advice, feedback on skills, and coaching, sponsorship entails externally facing support including advocacy, visibility, promotion, and connections. 

Historically, far more men than women have recognized the benefits derived from networking, mentoring, and sponsorship. Our research shows that women are 20 percent less likely than men to have a strategic network of sponsors whom they look to for career guidance and 1.5x less likely than men to have received advice from a sponsor on how to advance. 

Download the full report: The Gender Gap at the Top: What’s Keeping Women from Leading Corporate America? 

Following are three key ways that formal sponsorship programs serve diverse talent: 

1. Access to essential relationship capital 

Sponsorship programs pair lower-level or newly hired employees, “sponsees,” with senior leaders at the organization, “sponsors.” Having someone in a position of power who will advocate for you when choice assignments or opportunities arise can be an effective way for women, particularly women of color, to combat systemic bias and break through the glass ceiling to positions of power and higher pay. 

“Too few people from underrepresented groups are reaching the top of their organizations, and a big reason is that their access to essential relationship capital is behind their counterparts.  For example, early career women are one-third as likely to have access to sponsors. Implementing an intentional and formal sponsorship program ensures they get high-stake opportunities, which are a prerequisite for a shot at the C-suite,” says Deborah Munster, VP of People, Operations, and Culture at Seramount. 

2. Higher pay 

As it turns out, those who have a sponsor are paid 11.6 percent more than those who do not, according to research from PayScale Inc. Perhaps not surprisingly, for men, the “sponsorship premium” is even higher: 12.3 percent compared to women at 10.2 percent. And to take it one step further, the sponsorship premium varies by race and ethnicity. According to the study, Hispanic and Black women have the most to gain from formal sponsorships. Hispanic women with a sponsor earn 6.1 percent more than Hispanic women without one. Black women with a sponsor earn 5.1 percent more than Black women without one. 

3. Advancement into leadership positions 

We’re already witnessing the power of formal sponsorship programs in the number of women rising into leadership positions at the Top Companies for Executive Women. In recent years, our data shows that the top companies are placing emphasis on implementing and improving formal sponsorship programs for women. In 2021 vs. 2020, we saw a 10 percent increase in the number of companies offering these programs and increases across the board in tracking promotion rates of sponsees, including building relationship capital with senior executives in sponsorship training and including P&L exposure in sponsorship. 

As the emphasis on formal sponsorships at these organizations increases, there seems to be a correlation with the measurable progress women are making in their climb to the top. Data shows more women at every career level, as well as more women in executive-level positions. Download our Power of Sponsorship Infographic to see the critical role sponsorship programs play in advancing diverse talent. 

Implementing Formal Sponsorship Programs at Your Company 

Recently, a global financial organization and Diversity Best Practices (DBP) member reached out to their DEI Advisor, Munster, to discuss their effort to target and advance underrepresented talent into the C-suite using a formal sponsorship program. They matched underrepresented talent with executive sponsors and tapped DBP to design a series of workshops aimed at sponsors and sponsees to build knowledge about roles and responsibilities as they entered into the program. Diversity Best Practices also worked closely with the organization to develop a workbook for program participants detailing the full 18-month program. 

“Sponsorship is a two-way street,” says Munster. “In order for a sponsorship program to be truly successful, it’s imperative that sponsees come to the table with a clear vision of what they want out of the program and what they can offer the relationship.” 

At the close of the program, participants reported a satisfaction rate of 90%, and the firm requested Diversity Best Practices to offer four additional workshops to their employees: Executive Presence, Authenticity vs. Conformity, Strategic Visioning, and Career and Talent Mapping. They also trained program participants on navigating political waters and how to overcome when stepping on a political landmine. 

As the sense of urgency grows for better diversity, racial equity, and inclusion outcomes, companies must implement new policies and programs with the direct intent of ushering diverse talent into senior leadership positions. A robust approach to sponsorship offers a tangible roadmap for advancing diverse talent. 

Interested in implementing a sponsorship program at your company but don’t know where to start? Contact us to become a Diversity Best Practices member and get in touch with one of our DEI advisors today. 

Download the full report: The Gender Gap at the Top: What’s Keeping Women from Leading Corporate America? 

About the Author

Casey Russo
Associate Director, Product Marketing