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Mentorship Is Nice, But Sponsorship Changes the Game

Innovation Center August 2nd, 2017

Mentorship and sponsorship

Mentorship Is Nice, But Sponsorship Changes the Game

What does it really take to turn the tides of diversity in the life sciences?

Some people say it’s about being more diligent in recruiting rather than relying on “tried and true” networks. Others say the secret is pairing young women and minorities with executive-level mentors who can lead by example.

But not enough is being said about the power of a more active form of mentoring known as sponsorship.

Having spent the majority of my career in the male-dominated field of investment banking, where I was often the sole woman in the room, I recognize the need for more diverse teams. I speak from experience when I say it’s a bit odd to be the first senior banker at a firm to get pregnant and take maternity leave.     

Fortunately, the life science industry is more gender-balanced than the world of investment banking. And I applaud my employer, The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, for making diversity a priority, as it provides a variety of clear advantages for both the company and its customers.

Yet our industry is far from perfect. There is no question we need more women and minorities in life science leadership roles, and we need to be approaching this goal with actions, not just words. That brings me back to the idea of sponsorship.

In short, being a sponsor means being a champion of someone in a lower-level position at your organization. It means sticking your neck out for promising young colleagues who otherwise might be overlooked for promotions or challenging assignments. It’s not just acting as a sounding board or providing advice on which networking events to attend. Sponsorship involves vocally advocating for protégés who deserve greater visibility.

Because someone sponsored me early in my career, I was able to advance to where I am today.

“All mentoring is not created equal,” the Harvard Business Review notes in a widely-cited report on this topic. “Without sponsorship, women not only are less likely than men to be appointed to top roles but may also be more reluctant to go for them.”

So what does sponsorship look like in practicality? For me, it means singling out junior colleagues for high-profile speaking slots at conferences; I often pass along opportunities that were first presented to me. It means mentioning names in meetings with higher-ups, and following through to make sure the women and minorities on your team are going after leadership roles when positions become available.

Large corporations take great pride in the people we recruit from the outside. But the most promising talent is often within, just waiting to be pulled up. I would like sponsorship to be celebrated, measured and rewarded as part of the culture at life science companies. That is the only way we’ll ever truly close the diversity gap in our industry. 

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