Why Your Workplace DEI Strategy Needs a Diversity Sponsorship Program

Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
July 25, 2023

When it comes to improving workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), there are a lot of strategies and tactics that get tossed around. But there’s one that often doesn’t make the list: diversity sponsorship programs.

It’s no secret that diverse talent often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to career progression—it’s one of the reasons why they continue to be underrepresented in the workplace.

A 2021 study from Grads of Life found that Black employees were promoted less and given fewer raises, compared to employees from other racial backgrounds. But it’s not just BIPOC employees, another study from McKinsey found that for every 100 men promoted to manager roles, there were only 87 women. This number drops to 82 for women of color.

Of course, there are systemic biases and other barriers faced by underrepresented employees that we can’t ignore. Tackling DEI issues is never simple, but sponsorship is an underrated and effective way for organizations to level the playing field for diverse employees.

So let’s talk about the dynamic duo that’s diversity and sponsorship and the role they play in elevating your workplace DEI.

Jump to a section in this article:

What is a diversity sponsorship program?

A diversity sponsorship program is a formal initiative that pairs employees from underrepresented backgrounds (the sponsee or protegé) with key leaders (the sponsor) in your organization who can vouch for and advocate on their behalf.

The goal is to provide targeted support for internal talent who may otherwise face barriers and challenges to career progression. 

But how big of a difference can sponsorship programs really make? Well, it turns out the impact is about 11.6%.

Ok fine, there’s a bit more nuance than that. 

But on average, employees who have sponsors earn 11.6% more than those who don’t. That’s a huge difference, especially when you consider that only 23% of employees report having a sponsor in the workplace. This amount doesn’t even begin to factor in the benefits sponsored employees enjoy, including promotions, organizational visibility, and other career opportunities.

Equity-seeking groups are already at a significant disadvantage in career progression. Diversity sponsorship programs are purposefully designed to give them a fair shot at making up that gap. 

Is diversity sponsorship the same as diversity mentorship?

If you already have a diversity mentorship program, you’re already one step ahead. But it’s worth noting that sponsorship and mentorship aren’t quite the same. 

They both play a huge role in elevating diverse talent in the workplace. Which is why you’ll often see them discussed in parallel, especially in the context of DEI.

Mentors familiarize themselves with their mentee's skills, challenges and goals, then help them put the puzzle pieces together. The role of the mentor usually ends at providing actionable advice to support their mentee’s workplace development.  The mentee is then responsible for putting the plan into action. 

Sponsorship takes it a step further. Effective sponsors will take actions themselves that can help advance their sponsee's career. For example, referring them for a promotion or getting them included in a new project. Depending on the relationship, a sponsor’s role can land anywhere on a spectrum between mentorship and sponsorship. But ultimately a sponsor should be going to bat for their sponsee, especially in situations when they’re likely to face bias and preconceptions.

Mentorship can be invaluable for underrepresented groups. And in many ways, serves as a stepping stone. But when it comes to tangible outcomes that improve DEI, sponsorship is better.

The importance of DEI in workplace sponsorship

Whether we realize it or not, many leaders are already naturally sponsoring employees in the workplace.

For example, a senior leader who is friends with a mid-level manager might mention them in meetings or put their name forward for a project. This boosts the mid-level manager’s visibility within the organization and creates opportunities for them to take on new projects. Over time this turns into a promotion or a salary increase.

Or consider an executive who has coffee with an ambitious intern. Maybe they mention that coffee chat to an HR lead, who then pulls that intern’s resume to the top of the pile when the intern applies for a full-time role. 

Those are all acts of sponsorship. So even if there isn’t a formal program in place, sponsorship is almost always happening under the radar. 

But when sponsorship happens through these back channels, you’re leaving room for bias and favoritism—even if it’s unintentional. And those who haven’t stumbled upon a sponsor, end up at a disadvantage for promotions and internal opportunities or even overlooked altogether.

And the reality is, it’s often underrepresented employees who ultimately slip through the cracks.

The current state of diversity in sponsorship programs

We’d love to tell you that diversity in sponsorship is thriving. But unfortunately, it’s just not. 

According to Harvard Business Review, only 5% of black employees have sponsors, compared to 20% of white employees. Women are also 54% less likely to have a sponsor than men.

Noticing a pattern?

The vast majority (71%) of sponsors have reported that their sponsee or protegé is of the same race or gender. So when white men still hold over 50% of the board seats in Fortune 500 companies, it’s easy to see why sponsorship lacks diversity. 

Instead of leaving networking to chance, diversity sponsorship programs intentionally connect employees from diverse backgrounds with influential mentors and sponsors. It helps balance the scales, so everyone has access to sponsorship opportunities that will get them ahead in their careers—even if they don’t see someone who looks like them at the leadership table, yet.

The impact of inclusive sponsorship

Sponsees always benefit from having a sponsor in their corner. But inclusive sponsorship doesn’t just support employees. When you prioritize inclusive sponsorship, the benefits can be far-reaching.

Some of the benefits of inclusive sponsorship include:

1. Increased employee representation

When diverse employees are sponsored at all levels of their careers, they’re more likely to make it to the next stage. But it’s not just sponsees. When managers proactively sponsor, they’re also 53% more likely to also be promoted.

We know mentorship can boost representation anywhere from 9 to 24%. So we know that since sponsorship is more effective at moving the DEI needle, the actual impact on employee representation is likely much higher.

2. Better employee skills development

Sponsors who also double as mentors can help identify skills gaps to help level up employees so they can step into senior roles when the time comes. They can also create opportunities for employees to nurture those skills.

Your internal talent already has potential. Sponsorship programs simply unlock it and bring it to the forefront of the conversations happening in the workplace. 

3. Larger internal talent pools

When employees have effective sponsors, their names are much more likely to come up when new opportunities and roles are discussed. Otherwise, underrepresented employees slip under the radar when new opportunities arise.

Most roles can be filled internally, many organizations just don’t realize it. Sponsorship can help improve the visibility of your internal talent pool, particularly those who may not have an existing network to lean on.

4. Stronger workplace culture and talent engagement 

Sponsorship opportunities give employees a chance to feel supported in their careers. When employees feel like they’re being supported, they’re more likely to be happier and more productive in their roles. It also fosters a better sense of belonging.

A 2021 study from Deloitte found that all underrepresented groups, including racial minorities and women, made up less than 50% of the board seats of all Fortune 500 companies. 

When sponsorship elevates historically underrepresented employees, we naturally see more diverse faces at the leadership table. It’s the best way to signal to your organization that employees from diverse backgrounds are welcome and able to secure opportunities at a senior level. Diversity that is visible across leadership teams can play a vital role in attracting and retaining top talent.

5. Increase in revenue and profits

When in doubt, follow the money. 

We already know that companies that prioritize diversity perform better than those that don’t. Diverse employees and leadership increase innovation, performance and profitability. 

Sponsorship improves diversity. And diversity improves revenue.

Want to build diversity sponsorship programs that drive engagement, promotion, and retention? Download solution overview

How to create equitable sponsorship programs in the workplace

It’s clear that sponsorship and mentorship programs can make a huge impact on elevating underrepresented talent. But when implemented poorly (or worse, not implemented at all) it can have the opposite effect.

Here are some tips for promoting diversity through sponsorship and making your sponsorship program equitable for all employees.

1. Make your sponsorship program intentionally diverse

The keyword here is intentionally.

We know all employees can benefit from formal sponsorship programs. But when you don’t make DEI a part of your sponsorship solution, you can reinforce existing hierarchies where only those who have connections and privilege are able to take advantage of sponsorship. 

Make it clear what you’re doing to overcome biases in sponsorship. 

It should be obvious that your diversity sponsorship program is designed to include and prioritize underrepresented groups. 

2. Empower male-female sponsorship opportunities

The last decade has seen a rise in women in leadership roles. And in 2022, the percentage of women in senior leadership roles rose to 32%—the highest levels ever recorded.

But we can’t just rely on women to create sponsorship for women in the workplace. Men still hold the overwhelming majority of leadership roles and women actually often see more success being mentored by men. 

Yet, studies have found that men are uncomfortable working with women. According to a LeanIn survey, 36% of men have avoided mentoring or socializing with women in the workplace. And senior-level men are 12x more likely to hesitate to have 1-1 meetings with junior women than junior men.

The key to empowering male-female sponsorship and closing that gap? Fostering reciprocal sponsorship and mentorship where the relationship actually benefits both parties.

3. Reduce biases in sponsorship matching

We’re all predisposed to affinity bias. We naturally gravitate toward and feel more comfortable around people who look and think like us. This is even more true with sponsorship, which can be a bit of an intimate affair. There’s a lot of trust that needs to be built up before a sponsor can feel comfortable advocating for a sponsee. 

But that means that when sponsors and sponsees are left to match themselves, historically underrepresented employees can easily find themselves sponsorless. Especially when you consider that there are fewer underrepresented individuals in senior leadership to begin with.

For sponsorship to be equitable and effective, you need to remove the bias behind the matching process. Use smart algorithms that match and introduce individuals based on their career goals and shared interests instead. This helps create matches that are actually the right fit—instead of relying on personal connections and subjective favoritism. 

4. Provide resources to foster inclusive partnerships 

Senior leaders often resist sponsorship—especially when they’re paired with sponsees that they don’t already have existing relationships with. Which often ends up being the case with diversity sponsorship programs.

Brand-new relationships take the bias out of the sponsorship process, but it also means effective sponsor-sponsee relationships can’t happen overnight.

Sponsees need to build trust in their sponsor so they can be honest about their goals and needs. And on the other hand, sponsors need to build confidence in their sponsee, so they can effectively advocate on their behalf.

As an organization, you need to provide the right resources so those partnerships can flourish, including:

  • Education: Provide sponsors with education around unconscious bias and inclusive leadership in 1-1 environments. Diversity sponsorship programs often require sponsors to build relationships with employees from diverse backgrounds other than their own. They need to do away with their assumptions and their own experiences to meet the needs of their sponsee, which is often easier said than done.
  • Structured curriculums: Meeting new people can be awkward—especially in the virtual world. Providing structured development programs and discussion guides that are tailored to your business can help guide conversations that nurture an effective and authentic sponsor-sponsee relationship.

5. Set and evaluate sponsorship program goals

When it comes to DEI strategy, including sponsorship, companies have a tendency to set it and forget it. An inclusive sponsorship program isn’t just a checkbox on your DEI to-do list.

You need to set objectives and measure your progress. They guide your program in the right direction so you’re making an impact where it matters.

Objectives for your diversity sponsorship program might include:

  • Increasing participation rates in your company’s formal sponsorship program, particularly among underrepresented employees.
  • Increasing representation in senior leadership and management roles.
  • Improving satisfaction rates for participants in your sponsorship program.
  • Improving internal mobility rates, particularly among underrepresented employees.

Take the time to collect the data and listen to participant feedback and stay accountable for the results. It’s the only way that you can guarantee that your sponsorship program is supporting your organization’s overall DEI goals.

6. Get the right tools to support inclusive sponsorship

Here’s the thing about DEI initiatives, you don’t have to do it alone. 

Inclusive sponsorship in particular can feel like a bit of a beast, especially if you don’t have the right tools and resources in place.

From helping you nail the sponsor-sponsee matching process to offering the right support for diverse employees, 10KC’s talent experience platform makes it easy for enterprises to prioritize workplace diversity.

Ready to kickstart your diversity sponsorship program with 10KC? Request a Demo

Diversity sponsorship programs FAQ

What is a diversity sponsorship program?

Diversity sponsorship programs match underrepresented employees with executives and company leaders who can support employee career growth and open doors to opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable.

Companies implement diversity sponsorship programs to improve representation across the organization and foster a more diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace.

Why is DEI important in workplace sponsorship?

DEI is important in workplace sponsorship because it ensures that sponsorship and career progression opportunities are equitably available to employees of all backgrounds. 

When DEI isn’t intentional, unconscious (and conscious) bias can creep in—which ultimately means underrepresented and diverse employees get left behind. Over time, this perpetuates the cycle of inequity within organizations and limits their efforts in building more inclusive and diverse talent pools.

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Why Your Workplace DEI Strategy Needs a Diversity Sponsorship Program

What is a diversity sponsorship program?

A diversity sponsorship program is a formal initiative that pairs employees from underrepresented backgrounds (the sponsee or protegé) with key leaders (the sponsor) in your organization who can vouch for and advocate on their behalf.

The goal is to provide targeted support for internal talent who may otherwise face barriers and challenges to career progression. 

But how big of a difference can sponsorship programs really make? Well, it turns out the impact is about 11.6%.

Ok fine, there’s a bit more nuance than that. 

But on average, employees who have sponsors earn 11.6% more than those who don’t. That’s a huge difference, especially when you consider that only 23% of employees report having a sponsor in the workplace. This amount doesn’t even begin to factor in the benefits sponsored employees enjoy, including promotions, organizational visibility, and other career opportunities.

Equity-seeking groups are already at a significant disadvantage in career progression. Diversity sponsorship programs are purposefully designed to give them a fair shot at making up that gap. 

Is diversity sponsorship the same as diversity mentorship?

If you already have a diversity mentorship program, you’re already one step ahead. But it’s worth noting that sponsorship and mentorship aren’t quite the same. 

They both play a huge role in elevating diverse talent in the workplace. Which is why you’ll often see them discussed in parallel, especially in the context of DEI.

Mentors familiarize themselves with their mentee's skills, challenges and goals, then help them put the puzzle pieces together. The role of the mentor usually ends at providing actionable advice to support their mentee’s workplace development.  The mentee is then responsible for putting the plan into action. 

Sponsorship takes it a step further. Effective sponsors will take actions themselves that can help advance their sponsee's career. For example, referring them for a promotion or getting them included in a new project. Depending on the relationship, a sponsor’s role can land anywhere on a spectrum between mentorship and sponsorship. But ultimately a sponsor should be going to bat for their sponsee, especially in situations when they’re likely to face bias and preconceptions.

Mentorship can be invaluable for underrepresented groups. And in many ways, serves as a stepping stone. But when it comes to tangible outcomes that improve DEI, sponsorship is better.

The importance of DEI in workplace sponsorship

Whether we realize it or not, many leaders are already naturally sponsoring employees in the workplace.

For example, a senior leader who is friends with a mid-level manager might mention them in meetings or put their name forward for a project. This boosts the mid-level manager’s visibility within the organization and creates opportunities for them to take on new projects. Over time this turns into a promotion or a salary increase.

Or consider an executive who has coffee with an ambitious intern. Maybe they mention that coffee chat to an HR lead, who then pulls that intern’s resume to the top of the pile when the intern applies for a full-time role. 

Those are all acts of sponsorship. So even if there isn’t a formal program in place, sponsorship is almost always happening under the radar. 

But when sponsorship happens through these back channels, you’re leaving room for bias and favoritism—even if it’s unintentional. And those who haven’t stumbled upon a sponsor, end up at a disadvantage for promotions and internal opportunities or even overlooked altogether.

And the reality is, it’s often underrepresented employees who ultimately slip through the cracks.

The current state of diversity in sponsorship programs

We’d love to tell you that diversity in sponsorship is thriving. But unfortunately, it’s just not. 

According to Harvard Business Review, only 5% of black employees have sponsors, compared to 20% of white employees. Women are also 54% less likely to have a sponsor than men.

Noticing a pattern?

The vast majority (71%) of sponsors have reported that their sponsee or protegé is of the same race or gender. So when white men still hold over 50% of the board seats in Fortune 500 companies, it’s easy to see why sponsorship lacks diversity. 

Instead of leaving networking to chance, diversity sponsorship programs intentionally connect employees from diverse backgrounds with influential mentors and sponsors. It helps balance the scales, so everyone has access to sponsorship opportunities that will get them ahead in their careers—even if they don’t see someone who looks like them at the leadership table, yet.

The impact of inclusive sponsorship

Sponsees always benefit from having a sponsor in their corner. But inclusive sponsorship doesn’t just support employees. When you prioritize inclusive sponsorship, the benefits can be far-reaching.

Some of the benefits of inclusive sponsorship include:

1. Increased employee representation

When diverse employees are sponsored at all levels of their careers, they’re more likely to make it to the next stage. But it’s not just sponsees. When managers proactively sponsor, they’re also 53% more likely to also be promoted.

We know mentorship can boost representation anywhere from 9 to 24%. So we know that since sponsorship is more effective at moving the DEI needle, the actual impact on employee representation is likely much higher.

2. Better employee skills development

Sponsors who also double as mentors can help identify skills gaps to help level up employees so they can step into senior roles when the time comes. They can also create opportunities for employees to nurture those skills.

Your internal talent already has potential. Sponsorship programs simply unlock it and bring it to the forefront of the conversations happening in the workplace. 

3. Larger internal talent pools

When employees have effective sponsors, their names are much more likely to come up when new opportunities and roles are discussed. Otherwise, underrepresented employees slip under the radar when new opportunities arise.

Most roles can be filled internally, many organizations just don’t realize it. Sponsorship can help improve the visibility of your internal talent pool, particularly those who may not have an existing network to lean on.

4. Stronger workplace culture and talent engagement 

Sponsorship opportunities give employees a chance to feel supported in their careers. When employees feel like they’re being supported, they’re more likely to be happier and more productive in their roles. It also fosters a better sense of belonging.

A 2021 study from Deloitte found that all underrepresented groups, including racial minorities and women, made up less than 50% of the board seats of all Fortune 500 companies. 

When sponsorship elevates historically underrepresented employees, we naturally see more diverse faces at the leadership table. It’s the best way to signal to your organization that employees from diverse backgrounds are welcome and able to secure opportunities at a senior level. Diversity that is visible across leadership teams can play a vital role in attracting and retaining top talent.

5. Increase in revenue and profits

When in doubt, follow the money. 

We already know that companies that prioritize diversity perform better than those that don’t. Diverse employees and leadership increase innovation, performance and profitability. 

Sponsorship improves diversity. And diversity improves revenue.

Want to build diversity sponsorship programs that drive engagement, promotion, and retention? Download solution overview

How to create equitable sponsorship programs in the workplace

It’s clear that sponsorship and mentorship programs can make a huge impact on elevating underrepresented talent. But when implemented poorly (or worse, not implemented at all) it can have the opposite effect.

Here are some tips for promoting diversity through sponsorship and making your sponsorship program equitable for all employees.

1. Make your sponsorship program intentionally diverse

The keyword here is intentionally.

We know all employees can benefit from formal sponsorship programs. But when you don’t make DEI a part of your sponsorship solution, you can reinforce existing hierarchies where only those who have connections and privilege are able to take advantage of sponsorship. 

Make it clear what you’re doing to overcome biases in sponsorship. 

It should be obvious that your diversity sponsorship program is designed to include and prioritize underrepresented groups. 

2. Empower male-female sponsorship opportunities

The last decade has seen a rise in women in leadership roles. And in 2022, the percentage of women in senior leadership roles rose to 32%—the highest levels ever recorded.

But we can’t just rely on women to create sponsorship for women in the workplace. Men still hold the overwhelming majority of leadership roles and women actually often see more success being mentored by men. 

Yet, studies have found that men are uncomfortable working with women. According to a LeanIn survey, 36% of men have avoided mentoring or socializing with women in the workplace. And senior-level men are 12x more likely to hesitate to have 1-1 meetings with junior women than junior men.

The key to empowering male-female sponsorship and closing that gap? Fostering reciprocal sponsorship and mentorship where the relationship actually benefits both parties.

3. Reduce biases in sponsorship matching

We’re all predisposed to affinity bias. We naturally gravitate toward and feel more comfortable around people who look and think like us. This is even more true with sponsorship, which can be a bit of an intimate affair. There’s a lot of trust that needs to be built up before a sponsor can feel comfortable advocating for a sponsee. 

But that means that when sponsors and sponsees are left to match themselves, historically underrepresented employees can easily find themselves sponsorless. Especially when you consider that there are fewer underrepresented individuals in senior leadership to begin with.

For sponsorship to be equitable and effective, you need to remove the bias behind the matching process. Use smart algorithms that match and introduce individuals based on their career goals and shared interests instead. This helps create matches that are actually the right fit—instead of relying on personal connections and subjective favoritism. 

4. Provide resources to foster inclusive partnerships 

Senior leaders often resist sponsorship—especially when they’re paired with sponsees that they don’t already have existing relationships with. Which often ends up being the case with diversity sponsorship programs.

Brand-new relationships take the bias out of the sponsorship process, but it also means effective sponsor-sponsee relationships can’t happen overnight.

Sponsees need to build trust in their sponsor so they can be honest about their goals and needs. And on the other hand, sponsors need to build confidence in their sponsee, so they can effectively advocate on their behalf.

As an organization, you need to provide the right resources so those partnerships can flourish, including:

  • Education: Provide sponsors with education around unconscious bias and inclusive leadership in 1-1 environments. Diversity sponsorship programs often require sponsors to build relationships with employees from diverse backgrounds other than their own. They need to do away with their assumptions and their own experiences to meet the needs of their sponsee, which is often easier said than done.
  • Structured curriculums: Meeting new people can be awkward—especially in the virtual world. Providing structured development programs and discussion guides that are tailored to your business can help guide conversations that nurture an effective and authentic sponsor-sponsee relationship.

5. Set and evaluate sponsorship program goals

When it comes to DEI strategy, including sponsorship, companies have a tendency to set it and forget it. An inclusive sponsorship program isn’t just a checkbox on your DEI to-do list.

You need to set objectives and measure your progress. They guide your program in the right direction so you’re making an impact where it matters.

Objectives for your diversity sponsorship program might include:

  • Increasing participation rates in your company’s formal sponsorship program, particularly among underrepresented employees.
  • Increasing representation in senior leadership and management roles.
  • Improving satisfaction rates for participants in your sponsorship program.
  • Improving internal mobility rates, particularly among underrepresented employees.

Take the time to collect the data and listen to participant feedback and stay accountable for the results. It’s the only way that you can guarantee that your sponsorship program is supporting your organization’s overall DEI goals.

6. Get the right tools to support inclusive sponsorship

Here’s the thing about DEI initiatives, you don’t have to do it alone. 

Inclusive sponsorship in particular can feel like a bit of a beast, especially if you don’t have the right tools and resources in place.

From helping you nail the sponsor-sponsee matching process to offering the right support for diverse employees, 10KC’s talent experience platform makes it easy for enterprises to prioritize workplace diversity.

Ready to kickstart your diversity sponsorship program with 10KC? Request a Demo

Diversity sponsorship programs FAQ

What is a diversity sponsorship program?

Diversity sponsorship programs match underrepresented employees with executives and company leaders who can support employee career growth and open doors to opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable.

Companies implement diversity sponsorship programs to improve representation across the organization and foster a more diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace.

Why is DEI important in workplace sponsorship?

DEI is important in workplace sponsorship because it ensures that sponsorship and career progression opportunities are equitably available to employees of all backgrounds. 

When DEI isn’t intentional, unconscious (and conscious) bias can creep in—which ultimately means underrepresented and diverse employees get left behind. Over time, this perpetuates the cycle of inequity within organizations and limits their efforts in building more inclusive and diverse talent pools.

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