10 September 2019

Women & Networks: Mentorship & Sponsorship – Building Broader Networks

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  • In 2019, we have had the opportunity to talk to organizations and vendors about the use of technology in taking a network-based approach to the advancement of women.
  • This is the first in a series of six articles highlighting our findings. A huge thanks to GSV AcceleraTE for sponsoring this research and to Dr. Inga Carboni for her collaboration!
  • In the course of our research we identified both four common practices to advance women. These approaches consisted of some of the mainstays in diversity and inclusion efforts.
  • This article will focus on one of the common approaches, relationships – both mentorships and sponsorships. We have omitted some company examples from the text below, as those will be available in the full PDF, due out in October.

Mentorship and sponsorship1

It is no secret that mentorship2 and sponsorship3 can help advance women.4 Despite this insight, there is a high degree of variance in the extent to which mentorship and sponsorship are formally developed and implemented5 across organizations. For example, many organizations simply “encourage” mentorship or sponsorship but have not formalized the program nor offered resources. By contrast, at IBM, any employee who is willing to share their knowledge can sign up to become a mentor or coach. The company even built its own platform, CoachMe, to increase the reach of mentoring opportunities throughout the organization.

This inconsistency in approach means that there is also inconsistency in the effectiveness of mentorship and sponsorship geared toward advancing women. Research by McKinsey & Co. shows that when mentorship and sponsorship activities are left to take place organically, women will get less mentorship and sponsorship than men, as indicated in Figure 1.6


Figure 1: Those who have never had substantive interactions with senior leaders, by gender | Source: McKinsey & Co, 2018.

Research also shows that as women rise in organizations, this trend only accelerates.7 This leaves us to conclude that simply encouraging women to have a mentor, encouraging her to attend a networking event, or connecting her to a high-powered individual is not enough. There needs to be a formalized and supported mentorship and sponsorship program.

When we further look at mentorship and sponsorship through a network lens, another challenge becomes clear: the way most programs are set up today creates single points of contact into higher-power networks. This can be problematic because they are also single sources of failure since mentees or sponsorees must rely on their mentor/sponsor for support or sponsorship into the network. Further, mentors or sponsors may end up having more mentees or sponsorees than they have time to adequately support.

Beyond formalizing mentorship and sponsorship programs,8 companies can focus on ways that mentorship and sponsorship can work from a network perspective for advancing women. Specifically, organizations can focus on the following:

  1. View mentorship and sponsorship in terms of teams, not just one-on-one relationships
  2. Create energizer opportunities within mentorship/sponsorship interactions
  3. Connect women to diverse external mentorship/sponsorship networks

1. View mentorship and sponsorship in terms of teams, not just one-on-one relationships

One way to make mentorship and sponsorship work more effectively is to design the program in a way that it can help women form a meaningful inner circle with women from diverse backgrounds. The most important component of this is to move beyond seeing mentorship and sponsorship as strictly one-on-one relationships and instead, view mentors and sponsors as teams or cohorts. In Figure 2, we have outlined how this could work, where the team meets at times as a larger group, sometimes with one mentor and two mentees and in other instances with just the mentees.

Figure 3 New Approaches To Help Close The Gender Gap

Figure 2: Suggestions for how to take a team-based approach to mentorship/sponsorship | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

The potential benefits of a team-based approach9 are significant, in that it can:

  • Provide more opportunities for women to form an inner circle with other women who are connected to diverse networks.
  • Reduce the burden on any one mentor/ sponsor since there would be more individuals to provide advice, support, or sponsorship.
  • Create an opportunity for mentees/sponsors to be connected into higher-value networks through more than one individual.
  • Enable multiple people to be involved in the mentorship/sponsorship relationship, reducing hesitancy some senior men feel about mentoring/sponsoring women10

One of the most difficult parts about a mentorship/sponsorship program is the logistics of matching and managing the relationships. However, there are a number of technologies that can help alleviate these logistical burdens. Further, current technology helps ensure that women are not hampered by their network and allows them to search for mentors and coaches (internally and externally). For example, Chronus (see Figure 3) offers search capabilities and mentor matching features. In addition to connecting people to mentors in their network, another vendor, InstaViser, integrates productivity technology into an organization’s current work (e.g., Microsoft Office or G-Suite) and helps individuals schedule and manage their interactions with their mentors/sponsors.


Figure 3: Mentor search and matching features in Chronus | Source: Chronus, 2019.

To date, we have not seen technology that focuses on how to match teams of mentors/sponsors to mentees/sponsorees, but we imagine that some of the existing technology could be adapted relatively easily to this case.

The #MeToo backlash

While organizations are trying to include men in the discussion of and efforts around gender diversity, some men are hesitant to get involved. Recent research11 shows that 60% of men now feel uncomfortable being involved in a common work activity with a woman. In addition, senior-level men are far more hesitant to interact with junior women than junior men out of a concern over how it might look.

Organizations need men to step up and commit to being part of the solution. Men, particularly leaders, need to be held accountable for how equitable they are in their mentorship and sponsorship activities. Male leaders should also be expected to get involved in gender diversity discussions, programs, and groups throughout the organization.

For men who have concerns about mentoring or sponsoring women in a 1:1 environment, organizations could support some form of group mentoring or sponsorship, similar to that described at the University of Michigan Department of Surgery. This approach would have the additional benefit of helping connect women to multiple leaders, reducing the reliance on a single connection to a higher-powered network.

2. Create energizer opportunities within mentorship/sponsorship

It’s important to structure mentorship / sponsorship relationships in ways that can allow women to serve as energizers within their networks. This is potentially easiest if organizations adopt the team-based mentorship / sponsorship approach. This would provide women with a safe group of individuals to try out new ideas. This would allow mentees / sponsorees an opportunity to hone their effectiveness at being energizers within their networks.

That said, an organization does not have to adopt a team-based approach to mentorship / sponsorship to introduce the concept of energizers into their mentorship / sponsorship practices. Even with one-on-one relationships, mentors / sponsors could promote their mentees / sponsored within their network as people who are good sounding boards for new ideas. This would give the mentees/sponsored both chances to be energizers and to develop more diverse ties.
To be clear, we did not see any organizations deliberately taking this approach. However, given the existing research, we think it holds a lot of potential, and we encourage organizations to incorporate it.

3. Deliberately connect women to diverse external mentorship / sponsorship networks

Women should not limit their diverse ties or energizer status to inside their organization. While it may seem odd that organizational leaders would support women developing their external network, consider this: research on innovation and agility underscores the importance of individuals having strong external sources of information (i.e., networks) outside of their organization.12 Strong external networks may eventually benefit women in terms of external advancement; in the meantime, these connections can benefit the organization in terms of new ideas and potentially new talent.
There are a number of technology solutions currently available to help with connecting women to mentorship/sponsorship networks. For example, Guild offers networking and mentorship capabilities within the organization and in communities external to the organization (Figure 4).13


Figure 4: Example of networking opportunities on Guild | Source: Guild, 2019.

Another vendor, Fairygodboss, provides an external social network for women to connect with others to better understand companies that are supportive of women and to ask the network for help in finding new roles or advice on advancing in their careers14 (see Figure 5). In the future, Fairygodboss is planning to launch company-specific communities, which could be used to help find internal mentors/sponsors or uncover invisible information (which we discuss in much greater detail later in this report).


Figure 5: Developing and leveraging an external network with Fairygodboss | Source: Fairygodboss, 2019.

Lastly, mentoring and sponsorship are personalized forms of development. To that end, mentorships and sponsorship programs alike can leverage technology that helps identify and offer personalized career pathing and development. For example, Landit offers a personalized career pathing experience with executive coaching, targeted skill development, personal branding and more. The platform’s board of advisors tool provides guidance and structure on how to manage mentor and sponsor relationships. This can be used in the mentorship or sponsorship relationship to add structure to what tends to be a less formalized practice. Another vendor, Everwise, provides not only a mentoring solution but also a marketplace of development content and curriculum across a number of topics.

We think there’s a significant opportunity for technology to help with mentorship and sponsorship in the future. For example, we could see technology enabling individuals to do the following things:

  • Automate agendas for check-ins
  • Send pulse surveys about current challenges
  • Connect teams of mentees/sponsored with mentors/sponsors
  • Provide curated content and curriculum

We’ve mentioned a lot of vendors in this section. Figure 6 summarizes those we included. Please note, a list of all vendors included in this report is in the Appendix.


Figure 6: Vendors included in the mentorship/sponsorship section | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.


  1. While we know that mentorship and sponsorship are different concepts, we have grouped them into one section in this report as many of the network-based approaches can be applied very similarly to the two activities.
  2. A professional relationship between an experienced individual and junior employee(s) to help provide career guidance, advice, and support as a form of career development.
  3. A professional relationship in which a senior leader actively advocates and promotes junior employee(s) for career opportunities.
  4. Research shows, though, that women are often over-mentored and under-sponsored, which can lead to a lack of advocacy for women for promotion, development, or growth assignments.
  5. This variation reflects research that found that roughly half of companies have a mentorship program, but less than a third support a sponsorship program. “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co., 2017. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2017
  6. “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co., 2018. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2018
  7. Ibid.
  8. Research suggests that formal programs are more successful when standards are clear, training is provided, programs are monitored, and participants are held accountable. “Connections that Count: The Informal Networks of Women of Color in the United States,” Giscombe, K., Catalyst, 2006. https://www.catalyst.org/research/connections-that-count-the-informal-networks-of-women-of-color-in-the-united-states/
  9. “Team-Based Mentoring,” University of Michigan Department of Surgery, 2018. https://medicine.umich.edu/dept/surgery/news/archive/201808/team-based-mentoring.
  10. ”Achievement Strategies,” University of Michigan Department of Surgery, 2019. https://medicine.umich.edu/dept/surgery/about-us/faculty-resident-life/our-initiatives/achievement-strategies.
  11. “Working Relationship in the #MeToo Movement: Key Findings,” Leanin.org, 2019. https://leanin.org/sexual-harassment-backlash-survey-results.
  12. For example, see: “The Impacts of Open Innovations on Organizational Performance: A Perspective Based on Information Technology and Knowledge Ecology,” Liang, T., Chen, D., and Pee, L., Thirty Fourth International conference on Information Systems, Milan, 2013. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a9cd/8487ff099ebd901b3695d582b613527fdaa4.pdf: and “Does External Knowledge Sourcing Enhance Market Performance? Evidence from the Korean Manufacturing Industry,” Kibaek Lee, K., Yoo, J., Choi, M., Zo, H., and Ciganek, A., 2016. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0168676.
  13. ”Smarter Networking to achieve your career goals,” Guild, 2019. https://www.letsguild.com/.
  14. “Community Feed”, Fairygodboss, 2019. https://fairygodboss.com/community/feed.


  1. Laura Francis

    This is such an excellent point: "…simply encouraging women to have a mentor, encouraging her to attend a networking event, or connecting her to a high-powered individual is not enough. There needs to be a formalized and supported mentorship and sponsorship program."

    I could not agree more. Full disclosure: I am the Chief Knowledge Officer at River mentoring software and have spent nearly 20 years advocating for mentoring in organizations. I've actually written about how to use mentoring to bring about more equality, such as through group mentoring, reverse mentoring, etc. https://www.riversoftware.com/leadership-development/equality-in-mentoring/ I'm excited to continue this conversation and help people find ways to do more with mentoring. Thanks for this great research, Stacia and Emily!

    • Stacia Garr

      You're welcome, Laura — thanks for the comment!

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