mentors vs. sponsors in labor markets

A lot of sociologists buy into the theory of “sponsored mobility,” which means that elites pick who gets the mobility. So I think there should be a lot of sympathy for  recent research showing that mentorship (communicating with more advanced people) does not have an effect on career advancement but sponsors (people who pick you, push you, and get benefit from it) do have an effect. Robin Hanson reviews a book by economist Sylvia Ann Hewett that makes this claim:

In a new book, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett uses data to show that mentorship, in its classic wise-elder-advises-younger-employee form, doesn’t produce statistically significant career gains. What does however, her research found, is something she has termed “sponsorship”—a type of strategic workplace partnering between those with potential and those with power. … –

And there is an important implication for the study of gender and inequality:

Women are only half as likely as men to have a sponsor—a senior champion at work who will basically take a bet on them, tap them on the shoulder, and really give them a shot at leadership. Women have always had mentors, friendly figures who give lots of advice. They’re great. They’re good for your self-esteem; they’re good for your personal development. But no one’s ever been able to show that they do anything to help you actually move up. …

We find that women in particular often choose the wrong people. … They seek out a senior person they’re very comfortable with. … For a sponsor, you should go after the person with power, because you need someone who has a voice at those decision-making tables. You need to respect that person, you need to believe that person is a fabulous leader and going places, but you don’t need to like them. You don’t need to want to emulate them.

If true, this forces me to modify my views. I have always believed that sponsored mobility is important in academia, but I believe that mentorship matters as well. If Hewett is right, my belief is misplaced. It’s really about sponsored mobility. So, if you care about women or minorities advancing in some career track (like academia), then forget the nice lunches. Administrators should double down on matching people with power players. A bit rude, but it might be one concrete way to chip away at inequality in the leadership of the academy.

Texts for the Ages: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 18, 2013 at 3:47 am

10 Responses

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  1. I’m highly skeptical about the value of these types of generalizations. Individual workers each have different needs and challenges, and some mentors offer far more valuable support than others. It stands to reason, therefore, that some mentorship relationships will be quite valuable while others may prove worthless or even counter-productive. In any event, I find it *extremely* hard to imagine that her findings would apply to career trajectories in academia.


    Kevin .

    November 18, 2013 at 4:40 am

  2. Reblogged this on Undergraduate Research Blog and commented:
    Mentors who pick and push you help to advance your career, quite like sociological theory predicts.



    November 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm

  3. I also find it hard to believe that you can be successful in academia without good mentors, as there are so many unwritten rules. That said, I am also certain that sponsorship is crucial. In sum, I buy the idea that sponsorship is key, but am not sure that mentorship has no effect.

    Mentoring is complex, however. It is not the case that you just need a mentor to be successful. You need a team of good mentors, and you need to know when and how to heed their advice.



    November 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm

  4. Before you give up on mentoring, see Fran Blau’s paper on the value of mentors for women assistant professors in economics. ( This paper uses a longitudinal design and randomized assignment to a mentoring program, although the pool of junior faculty members who applied to the program was self-selected. She finds a substantial positive effect of mentoring on both publications and grants five years out, and a smaller effect 3 years out.



    November 18, 2013 at 4:18 pm

  5. is it fair to say that all sponsors are mentors (though perhaps gruff), but not all mentors are sponsors? the difference in the two being power/network centrality?



    November 18, 2013 at 8:45 pm

  6. Issues of sponsorship may especially be important in cross-race relationships. Check out “Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue-Collar Jobs” by Deirdre Royster. The book blub reads “At the heart of this study is the question: Is there something about young black men that makes them less desirable as workers than their white peers? And if not, then why do black men trail white men in earnings and employment rates? Royster seeks an answer in the experiences of 25 black and 25 white men who graduated from the same vocational school and sought jobs in the same blue-collar labor market in the early 1990s. After seriously examining the educational performances, work ethics, and values of the black men for unique deficiencies, her study reveals the greatest difference between young black and white men—access to the kinds of contacts that really help in the job search and entry process.” I would add that the best contacts were the covert referrals that the white students mostly received from their teachers.


    Eric s

    November 19, 2013 at 5:58 pm

  7. This conversation and the post itself seems to presuppose that there is a choice between mentorship and sponsorship which I think is a false dilemma. Mentors and sponsors do two different things and a single person or team of people could play both roles. Mentoring is an advising role focused on the mentee’s development. Sometimes that can be career attainment advice, but it doesn’t have to be. Sponsorship, on the other hand, is advocacy. It’s directly helping secure resources, positions, and attention. Thus, it makes a lot of sense that sponsors would play a large role in career attainment. But, to the extent that personal and professional development is a necessary requisite to attainment, mentorship, even in the absence of sponsorship, should tend to have an effect. Ultimately, for those involved in such a relationship, I think the mentorship/sponsorship question is one that should be decided based on the particular situation (i.e. does the subordinate need resources or advice to succeed? Is this a job application or a research question?) and based on the needs of the junior member and the judgment and capabilities of the senior member.


    Jason Radford

    November 19, 2013 at 10:45 pm

  8. Umm, self-selection? People who are likely to succeed are more likely to also be selected for sponsorship, rather than just mentorship by elite actors. If you’re someone in power you’ll pick someone to sponsor based on their (perceived) ability, while as a nice person you might mentor several others …


    doc student on JM

    November 20, 2013 at 9:49 am

  9. follow-up: the gender-bias results however would dispel above possibility. So I guess my hand-waving is no better, perhaps worse, than Hewett’s.


    doc student on JM

    November 20, 2013 at 9:54 am

  10. There is a long established literature on mentoring at work, though surprisingly few sociologists have contributed to it. For those interested in the topic, check out the Handbook on Mentoring at Work (Ragins & Kram 2007) and the Blackwell Handbook on Mentoring (Allen & Eby 2007). Several meta-analyses and special issues on workplace mentoring have appeared in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, the Journal of Community Psychology, and the American Journal of Community Psychology. My take: mentoring has a significant (though somewhat modest) positive impact on an array of career outcomes. True there is a lot of variability in the efficacy of different types of mentoring (traditional, peer, multiple, e-mentoring, etc.). Still, mentoring definitely matters (net of selection factors) and is generally quite positive. Sponsors are a special type of mentor and I’m glad to see Hewett give them the attention they deserve because the distinction is rarely addressed in the scholarship that I have seen.



    November 23, 2013 at 1:32 am

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