PRSonally Speaking

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mentorship vs. Sponsorship
by Devra Becker, MD
I was awarded a Career Development Grant by Case Medical School, but this one had a twist. The funds were not to be used as direct research costs; indeed, they were not to be used for a specific research project at all. They were to be used for career development in the most basic sense—to develop those skills that would enable me to be an active participant in academia.


If a CV provides a continually evolving genetic blueprint for one’s academic career, this program would provide the epigenetic factors that allow one to advance, and—as the committee put it—increase visibility in the academic community. It was through this grant that I found myself doing coursework in leadership, and in women in leadership in particular.


You might think, as I did, that we would grapple with questions such as: What are the qualities of a good leader? How do great leaders inspire us?


Well, through their vision and their charisma, of course. I find that less intellectually engaging than the data we discussed about who gets to become a leader, and why. What are the data? Let’s take a look.

Carter and Silva, found that women are hired at lower-ranking positions in organizations, even when factors like education, work experience, and industry are taken into account (Carter, N and Silva, C. “Women in Management: Delusions of Progress”. Harvard Business Review, 2010.) 


Follow-up studies have shown that even with mentorship, men received more promotions than women. Is it because women don’t advocate for themselves? Perhaps, although some research suggests that biases are inherent in the system. Goldin and Rouse published findings that since the introduction of screened blinded auditions for orchestras, the acceptance of women from preliminary audition rounds into final rounds rose by 50%, and is associated with an increased acceptance in final rounds (Goldin C and Rouse C, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The impact of “blind auditions on female musicians.” The American Economic Review, 90:4, Sep 2000.)


In other words, judges and conductors accepted and hired women at significantly higher rates when they were blinded to their gender, and those women were judged solely on the quality of their work. A particularly clever study on the role of gender in academic hiring and promotion practices by Steinpreis, Anders, and Ritzke demonstrated that external referees were more likely to recommend hiring a male candidate over a female one with an identical record, and were more likely to conclude that the male candidate “had done adequate teaching, research, and service experience compared with a female…with an identical record.” (Steinpreis, R, Anders K, Ritzke, D. “The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curriculum Vitae of Job Applicants and Tenure Candidates: A National Empirical study.” Sex Roles, 41:7/8, 1999.)


But let us assume that there will be a certain amount of irreducible bias—or that, at least, we cannot, as individuals with overbooked clinics and full surgery schedules, change that culture. A particular challenge in evaluating advancement among women is that it is easy to cherry-pick women who have succeeded, and men who have not lived up to their promise, particularly in a relatively small discipline like Plastic Surgery. Let me propose that the difference between men’s and women’s success is mentorship.


The difference is mentorship,
and what it doesn’t do.


The difference is mentorship, and what it doesn’t do. In a Harvard Business Review study, women had more mentors than did men (Ibarra, H, Carter, N, Silva, C. “Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women.” Harvard Business Review. Sept, 2010.) The nature of the guidance, however, differed between men and women. Women had more mentors, but their mentors focused on discussions of career plans, and work-life balance.


Men, on the other hand, had more sponsors. A sponsor actively advocates for his (or her) protégés.  The sponsors focus on action, and the mentors focus on discussion.


A mentor critiques your research project design; a sponsor pushes for you to sit on a panel. A mentor talks to you about skill development; a sponsor approaches the dean on your behalf for your promotion.


There is no reason why women should not be advancing in fields like Plastic Surgery. Studies of leadership show that there is no difference in quality between female leaders and male leaders, and no difference in leadership characteristics. Common stereotypes about women leaders, such as their tendency to be more collaborative, turn out not to hold true, particularly in male-dominated fields.


And interestingly, Zenger and Folkman showed that women actually rated higher than men in twelve of sixteen leadership metrics (Zenger, J, Folkman, J. “Are Women Better Leaders than Men?Harvard Business Review)


I notice female residents and faculty who are over-mentored and under-sponsored because, as a woman, I am primed to. But the problem isn’t confined to women. I have seen many people—male and female, African American and Caucasian, Christian and Jewish—fall into that trap.


One of the exercises of the class was to make a list of your mentors and your sponsors. I had some time left over after I had made my list, so I started a new list. Who am I mentoring, that I could be sponsoring instead? What opportunities did I have to be, in my own small way, a sponsor for someone junior to me?


I have made a commitment to identify my mentors and sponsors, give them credit, and do what I can to advance their careers as they help to advance mine. But I have also made a commitment to actively seek out opportunities to be a sponsor. I believe that with focus on sponsorship, we will be able to recruit and retain talented medical students, residents, and junior faculty in academic medicine.