National Mentoring Month: Why Sponsorship Matters for Women in STEM

Two women in office attire looking forward
January 21, 2016

January is National Mentoring Month, so it’s the perfect time to discuss mentoring women in STEM. A great mentor can enhance your career, but not all mentoring is created equal. As different types of mentorship have been defined and studied, sponsorship has emerged as a likely frontrunner for the most effective way to advance someone’s career.

What is sponsorship, and how does it differ from mentoring?

In addition to serving as a role model and offering career advice, sponsors use their social or political capital to actively promote your career. They stick their neck out on your behalf. The Sponsor Effect, a report prepared by the Center for Work-Life Policy, explains that in addition to using their chips on your behalf and advocating for your work promotions, sponsors also do at least two of the following:

  • Expand your perception of what you can do
  • Connect you with senior leaders
  • Promote your visibility
  • Connect you to career opportunities
  • Advise you on your appearance
  • Make connections for you outside of your company
  • Give career advice

Although both mentoring and sponsorship can improve women’s recruitment and retention in STEM, AAUW’s Solving the Equation research report suggests that sponsorship may be uniquely beneficial.

Why are so few women in computing and engineering?

Many women feel like they don’t belong in these fields. They may feel isolated and unheard by supervisors, work in a stereotypically “geeky” environment, or face daily microaggressions, so it’s not surprising that women lack this critical sense of belonging. Computing and engineering may also not seem like professions in which communal goals can be achieved. Research reported in Solving the Equation has shown that communal goals like collaborating with colleagues or working to directly benefit others tend to be especially important to women. All these factors contribute to women not feeling like they can be computer scientists or engineers.

How can we convince women that they belong in computing and engineering?

Solving the Equation suggests that mentoring remains one of the best ways to recruit and retain women in these fields. However, while we still need more research on how sponsorship could specifically benefit women in computing and engineering, it’s easy to see how it could be more beneficial than mentoring alone. Having someone in your corner who is willing to advocate for you is empowering. It’s easier to believe you belong if you have a powerful sponsor who believes it, too, especially one who is willing to actively demonstrate confidence in you by using social capital on your behalf. Sponsors do much more than offer good career advice; by sticking their necks out for women in STEM, they are showing everyone that women belong in those fields. Sponsors can ease the psychological burden of being “the only one in the room.”

Although mentoring has its benefits, when it comes to advancing women in these fields, mentoring alone has not been enough. Despite the abundance and variety of mentoring programs in academia and in the workplace, women remain vastly underrepresented in computing and engineering. Sponsorship matters, and it may just be the key that gets and keeps women in STEM.

This post was written by AAUW research intern Grace Handley.


Be on the lookout for AAUW’s upcoming research report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, which examines sponsorship and how it can help women advance in leadership positions..

 


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AAUW Intern By:   |   January 21, 2016

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