By: Martin N. Davidson and Lisa Cannell

“I was getting kind of lost … I’d had five bosses in five years, and sales manager No. 5 looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, you are so talented and nobody knows who you are. Work with me. We’re going to get you on the agenda at the national sales meeting. I’m going to get you to travel — the vice president’s going to travel with you,’ and basically, I did what he told me, and I had a major promotion nine months later.”[i] — Christina R.

Women and men don’t differ in intelligence or business acumen, yet women continue to fly under the radar when it comes to advancement into executive positions. Christina R.’s story provides insight into why: Sometimes it’s not just what you know or who you know, but who knows you.

More Than a Mentor

“A highly placed, influential mentor, more precisely called a sponsor, goes far beyond giving general career feedback and advice; a sponsor can propel a protégé to the top of a list or pile of candidates,” explains Catalyst, a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. A productive relationship between a sponsor and his or her protégé includes building trust that the protégé will make the most of the opportunities provided by the sponsor’s advocacy. The sponsor may speak up for the protégé to be assigned visibly important assignments and even fight for her or his promotion.

The problem? Women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored, according to some experts and as discussed in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “Why Men Have More Help Getting to the C-Suite.”

Fraternization: Under the Wing of a Bird of a Feather

For years in the corporate world, sponsorships came out of friendships or relationships in which two individuals traveled in similar circles socially or had common interests. It’s unsurprising and may be chalked up to human nature; research has shown that we feel more comfortable associating with people who are similar to us.[ii]

However, that’s human nature we’d be well-advised to rise above; with men in a disproportionate number of top executive roles[iii], this self-reinforcing cycle places women at a disadvantage.

The disadvantage affects women, but also extends to companies and even economies. A 2016 study by the Peterson Institute of International Economics, Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence From a Global Survey, showed that having more women in top management positions was associated with a 15 percent increase in profitability. And McKinsey Global Institute’s report The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth showed the enormous potential the advancement of equality for women could add to global GDP.

Alliance, Not Crossing a Line

In reaction to the #MeToo movement, some men may be apprehensive about sponsoring or initiating a friendship with a female employee, for fear of the perception of getting inappropriately close.

However, Catalyst’s report Sexual Harassment in the Workplace states that “strict rules such as outlawing all closed-door meetings or physical touch of any kind might unintentionally serve to stop inclusive human interactions. That, in turn, could lead to employees feeling less of a sense of belongingness on their work teams or receiving fewer opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship, particularly for women.”[iv]

In fact, we need to encourage sponsorship across difference. Darden Professor Martin Davidson is an expert on leadership and diversity and inclusion, and has created an approach he calls “leveraging difference.” In his book The End of Diversity as We Know It, he explains that companies can acquire difference through well-worn tactics like diversity recruiting, but keeping people in the company requires that the company learn to leverage difference to drive business objectives. Managed well, the presence of diversity creates opportunities for innovation, learning, growth and superior performance.

What to Do About It

According to Professor Davidson, companies stand to benefit from proactively cultivating sponsorship programs and rewarding executives who sponsor women and under-represented minorities.

Sponsorship catalyzes talent and increases the leadership pipeline and retention of women for the C-suite and boards.

The onus for change is not solely on those in positions of power; protégés can be proactive in searching out sponsorship and providing a convincing case for support; what might have happened to Christina R.  in our example if sales manager No. 5 hadn’t noticed her talent?

As individuals, how do we break our habits of associating with people who are similar and begin more “sponsorship across differences”? Below, Davidson offers tips for would-be sponsors and protégés of all types.


  • Do your homework; learn about the experiences of those unlike you in the company. Talk to them and read about it.
  • Look for talented people; check your biases, and be proactive about reaching out.
  • When thinking about new and innovative ways for your organization to do things, reach across differences to solicit ideas from talent with new perspectives.


  • Practice putting yourself in the shoes of a potential sponsor. Check your own biases, and do research to uncover what they may experience in their roles.
  • Learn to manage upward; create noticeable value for your boss and the company.
  • Step up — appreciate that sponsors are looking for talented people, so speak up and be visible.

In the #MeToo era, businesses are addressing many of the moral and legal issues affecting equality and advancement. The key will be navigating through such issues without distancing ourselves from each other, and while doing so, continuing to build inclusive cultures.


[i] Heather Foust-Cummings, Sarah Dinolfo and Jennifer Kohler, Sponsoring Women to Success, Catalyst (2011):

[ii] Sean P. Mackinnon, Christian H. Jordan and Anne E. Wilson, “Birds of a Feather Sit Together: Physical Similarity Predicts Seating Choice,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 37, Issue 7 (2011):

[iii] Catalyst, Quick Take: Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace (August 11, 2017):

[iv] Lauren P. Daley, Dnika J. Travis and Emily S. Shaffer, Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: How Companies Can Prepare, Prevent, Respond and Transform Their Culture, Catalyst (2018):

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.