Could Sponsorship Programs Undermine Women?

If you want to make it easier for women to succeed in your organization, then consider a sponsorship program, in which high-ranking executives serve not just as mentors to junior female employees but actively advocate on their behalf. Through this advocacy, the thinking goes, women will have access to assignments and job opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Well, a recent study conducted by a mother/daughter research team — Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Katie Coffman and her mother, College of the Holy Cross Business Professor Nancy Baldiga — suggests that sponsorships may, in some cases, serve to widen the gender pay gap.

“We’re not trying to say that sponsorship programs don’t work or that they’ll always backfire,” Coffman told the Harvard Business Review. “What we are saying is that certain aspects of sponsorship don’t work exactly how we’d want them to work, at least in the lab.”

Coffman and Baldiga’s findings are titled “Laboratory Evidence on the Effects of Sponsorship on the Competitive Preferences of Men and Women,” and published in the journal Management Science. In the study, they sought to gauge the efficacy of two isolated ideas related to sponsorship: the idea that being personally chosen by a sponsor as a protege could serve as an important “vote of confidence,” and the idea that linking sponsors’ compensation to their proteges’ outcomes might serve as further motivation to the protege.

Coffman and Baldiga set up several rounds of experiments in which a group of 176 men and 178 women solved basic math problems for cash awards. In one round, participants could opt for a guaranteed payment of 50 cents per problem solved, or they could compete for higher stakes. Those who chose to compete would receive more money (ranging from $1 to $3 per problem) so long as they scored in the top 25 percent of problem solvers, otherwise, they received nothing. More men than women opted for the competition over the guaranteed payment, as the researchers predicted.

In the next round, an element of sponsorship was introduced. In each session, three participants were randomly chosen as “sponsors” who would receive 25 cents each time a “protege” correctly solved a problem — but only if the protege chose to compete instead of receiving the guaranteed payment and if they scored in the top quartile of problem solvers. To find out whether participants would be more willing to compete if someone was sponsoring them, the proteges were told they had sponsors before choosing whether to take the guaranteed payout or compete.

The result? Only the male proteges proved more likely to compete if they had sponsors. There was no significant change in the number of women choosing to compete compared to the previous round. Notably, the researchers found that the men who performed the worst on the math-problem exercise were the most likely to compete if they had sponsors.

Although sponsorship may be bringing about some positive effects in the workplace, Coffman says, the lab results suggest that it may not be effective in closing the gender wage gap — if anything, she says, it may reverse it. “If anything, we see a larger gender gap in willingness to compete [when sponsorship is introduced].”

“I think it’s great that we’re being more creative about solutions to female advancement, and there might be a lot of good things going on in terms of sponsorship,” Coffman told the HBR. “Now we just need to understand better what does work and why.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.