Women Are Over-Mentored (But Under-Sponsored): A conversation with Professor Herminia Ibarra

JULIA KIRBY: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast, from Harvard Business Review. I’m Julia Kirby, and today I’m joined by one of the authors I most enjoy working with. She’s Herminia Ibarra. She’s the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD, where she also teaches courses on organizational behavior. And in our September 2010 issue, she, along with Nancy Carter and Christine Silva of Catalyst, have written an article. It’s called Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women. Herminia, thanks for being here and sharing some thoughts today.


JULIA KIRBY: Let’s start with the original title of the piece, and I know that it got changed a little along the way. But in the original title, we were talking about “stop mentoring, and start sponsoring.” And that’s the key distinction I think you want to make in this piece. Maybe you can tell us what’s the point of that distinction between mentoring and sponsoring.

HERMINIA IBARRA: Sure. And if you’ll recall where we actually started, the idea was to say that high potential women are over-mentored, and under-sponsored. Mentoring is a term that gets thrown around a lot. And it’s used to describe a whole range of relationships that help people develop in their career. But really over time and with common usage, what it’s come to connote, for just about everybody, is somebody who shows people the ropes, helps them get acclimated, and provides benevolent advice. Somebody who cares about them, with whom they can bat around strategies, get some counsel.

But the connection to actually getting promoted and actually getting developmental assignments, has been kind of diluted. When we use the term sponsoring, we focus in on that one specific function of mentoring, which may or may not be a part of a relationship. And sponsoring really is a very targeted thing. It has to do with fighting to get somebody a promotion, mentioning their name in an appointments meeting, and making sure that the person that you’re sponsoring gets the next assignment, and gets visible and developmental assignments.

A mentor could be your direct boss. It could be somebody anywhere in the hierarchy. A sponsor has to be highly placed. Otherwise, they can’t actually pull the person up through. And that’s also an important distinction.

JULIA KIRBY: So that sponsoring help from someone well-placed in the organization ends up being extremely valuable to someone’s career progress. Let’s talk about women versus men in that respect, then. Maybe you can tell us about that research, how you structured it, how you found a gender difference.

HERMINIA IBARRA: There’s a few different parts to this research. It really started with a survey conducted by Catalyst, looking at high potentials– people who have MBA degrees, and are highly experienced credential. And we started looking with them at what were some of the gender differences in that large– over 4 thousand people– sample. And one of the intriguing things that we found was that, although there weren’t any gender differences in having a mentor– in fact, women tended to have more mentors and report getting more mentoring– the men’s mentors were more senior, or more likely to be senior executives. And one of the things that intrigued us was trying to figure out, to what extent do these mentoring relationships translate into promotions advancement? Which is one of the things we most cared about in this study.

And so two years later, Catalyst did a follow-up to this study. In order to figure out of that population, how many have received promotions in that two-year period? For men, there was a significant relationship between having had a mentor two years before, and having had a promotion two years later. For women, there was no relationship. Having a mentor had no correlation whatsoever with whether they got promoted or not.

JULIA KIRBY: Wow. So basically you found out that more mentoring does not equal more promotions, necessarily.

HERMINIA IBARRA: Right. Precisely the point. And that’s interesting, because organizations put a lot of money and effort and energy into mentoring programs and into matching people up.

JULIA KIRBY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I recall, in your article you were quoting someone as saying she felt mentored to death.

HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, the other part of this study is we did an in-depth interview study of, again, high potential men and women– people who are viewed as having the potential to ascend to the highest levels of the organization– to kind of look at their experiences. And we had a number of actually, really rather funny, interviews with women who said, gee, there’s this mentoring program, and that mentoring program. And I have this mentor who wants me to do x, and that mentor who wants me to do y. And they all have pre-work, and they all have different extracurricular activities. And yeah, I’m going to get mentored to death before I’m promoted.

And we thought that was kind of interesting also, in light of all of this mentoring that women are getting. But again, without it necessarily getting translated, producing actual promotions. And that’s really the main argument that we pick up in the article, is why is that? Why is all this mentoring not producing results? And what can be done to actually make sure that it does?

JULIA KIRBY: It’s such a valuable thing here that you’ve teased apart, sponsorship from mentoring. But now let’s talk about what does that mean in practice? What does that mean that a company would do differently, if it were saying, well OK, it’s really about sponsorship.

HERMINIA IBARRA: It comes directly from what is sponsorship. And that is if you’re clear that what you want a program to do, is to increase the number of women getting promoted, then you’re going to look for a different kind of person to serve as a sponsor or as manager, than if your goal is mostly to make sure that people get some coaching and advice. And companies who are focusing on sponsoring these days, are signing up their most senior managers to sponsor their junior, highly-talented people.

JULIA KIRBY: So you just touched on some keys to creating, maybe a programmatic approach at sponsorship, which would be to identify the right goals, and then based on those, select the right sponsors. You also talked about actually holding those sponsors accountable for some results. How would you do that?

HERMINIA IBARRA: You’re right, that it’s a soups to nuts. You really have to be clear about the objective, then have the right matches based on those objectives, make sure you communicate them. But the last piece is really critical, and that is you’ve got to hold people accountable. Now obviously, they are not 100% responsible for whether this person gets promoted or not. But if their mandate is sponsor this person for promotion, if in fact the person is not promoted in round one, in round two they really need to make sure that they either help that person get developmental help, or come back and say we may have made a mistake. This is really not the right path for this individual.

IBM Europe is experimenting a lot with this kind of thing. And they have a sponsoring program– I think it’s a nice example– in which they’re very clear, that if the person doesn’t get promoted, in fact it’s a failure of the sponsor, and not of the candidate. And they have to work really hard with them to make sure that the person’s profile is raised, that their talents and skill set are communicated to the decision-makers. And if there is a gap in skills, they need to help the person find the projects that are going to help them fill it. There is a time frame attached, and that’s how you make people accountable.

JULIA KIRBY: I guess the downside or the criticism of this might be that, well, why is promoting sponsorship not the same as promoting favoritism? It’s easy to see why women themselves might need to be advised to seek out sponsors more. But why is it important, or a good thing, to be advising companies to worry about whether women have sponsors?

HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, I guess where we start is a lot of companies have put it at the top of their agenda to make sure that they diversify their talent pool at the highest level. A lot of companies have had this on their agenda for quite some time. And as you well know, the numbers have not gotten better at a rate that people find satisfying and acceptable. You still see, really, quite a small percentage of women at the senior levels. A lot of them are trying to figure out what are we doing wrong, or what could we be doing better? And one of the things that they have realized– which is actually what led, years ago, to the rise of mentoring programs– is that men more naturally, informally, in an unplanned way, are getting this kind of sponsorship. It just happens. Your boss looks out for you, and makes sure to place you.

Whereas for women, that’s a lot trickier, for a whole host of different reasons. Sometimes very subtle and implicit biases in the workplace, sometimes just the lack of chemistry that comes with not being similar to your boss in different ways. They were not getting that sponsorship. They were getting mentoring. They were getting coaching. They were getting developmental advice. But they were not getting fought for and protected, and really put out there. And so the rationale between this new generation of sponsoring programs– which actually we’re seeing a lot of companies pick them up– is to try to level the playing field. And it’s not to say, women are going to get this and men are not. But really to try through formal programs to make sure that talented– both men and women– are getting access to this very critical kind of career help.

JULIA KIRBY: Sounds like a terrific goal to have. It’s one I can surely get behind. That’s all we have time for today. Herminia, thanks for being here, and sharing this glimpse of your new research.


JULIA KIRBY: That was Herminia Ibarra. Her article, with Nancy Carter and Christine Silva, is Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women. It’s in the September 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review. For more, go to hbr.org or follow us on Twitter @HarvardBiz.