Mentoring has traditionally been understood to be the relationship between a more experienced mentor and a younger, less experienced individual, which helps the younger person to develop their career. The mentoring function has changed over time, and has branched into two distinct types of relationship: mentoring and sponsorship. A ‘mentoring’ relationship provides the protégé with psychosocial support, whereas ‘sponsorship’ involves proactive instrumental help to advance a person’s career.
One measure of the success of gender equality initiatives is increased representation of women at senior levels, and mentoring has in the past been used by organisations to support and develop female talent. Over the last two to three decades, mentoring-for-women initiatives have been standard in gender equality and diversity initiatives, but women still rarely make it to the tops of organisations. This casts doubt on the ability of mentoring to increase the numbers of women in senior leadership roles.
Sponsorship, on the other hand, has been found to be effective in increasing objective career outcomes such as promotions and pay increases by providing proactive career-related support. This type of support may be more effective than mentoring to increase the numbers of women moving through the management pipeline to senior leadership. Women, however, are more likely to be offered relationship-focused mentoring with a relatively junior mentor, whereas men are more likely to be actively sponsored by a senior member of the management team.