01 August 2022


    Why mentorship and sponsorship are key tools for women in business

    We may be living in the 21st century, but women are still often overlooked when it comes to advancing in the workplace, particularly within male-dominated industries. In such settings, having the support of both a mentor and a sponsor can mean the difference between becoming trapped in a career rut and breaking business barriers.  

    While women in business are today more empowered than ever before, there is a still a long way to go to ensure they’re offered equal opportunities. Indeed, according to recent stats from the Commission for Employment Equity, black women make up only 4,6% of top management in the private sector. Whether it be due to the impact of preconceptions around gender, race, age, family responsibilities or other factors, women undeniably have to fight that much harder to attain leadership positions. 

    That’s even truer within traditionally male-dominated industries such as mining, construction, motoring, engineering and so on. While there’s no substitute for confidence, some women tend to feel uncomfortable when it comes to self-promotion. But to stand out in a boys’ club requires a focused strategy as well as back-up. That’s why having a powerful and multifaceted support team is also vital for women, specifically in these industries. 

    According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “access to influential leaders and supportive work relationships is critical to career advancement.” Having a mentor, while invaluable, is not enough. Women need sponsors too. While mentors provide inspiration and general career guidance, sponsors actively advocate for recognition and opportunities for those they support within a particular organisation. 

    Understanding mentorship
    In one’s career, it often helps to learn from those who have been there before – who know what it takes to attain career success, especially when the odds are stacked against them. Someone who imparts their wisdom and gives others the skills and advice they need to navigate work challenges. In a business context, a mentor can provide guidance, advice, skills feedback and development and coaching. There’s trust and understanding on both sides – the mentee and mentor relationship is one that requires mutual admiration and respect. 

    Mentors need not work in the same company as their mentees – and often do not – but they will have the kind of experience and knowledge required to empower them to excel in their specific fields. They help mentees define where they want their careers to take them and ensure they have the tools they need to get there – and the confidence to overcome any obstacles that may arise.

    Many consider their mentors to be role models – mentees are inspired by the achievements and work ethic of their mentors. The want to emulate the values and competencies that their mentors have developed on their path to success. Mentors can help mentees develop not only within the workplace but in their personal capacity too. They’re there to ensure their mentees are fulfilled by the job they’re doing and that they’re in a job that utilises their strengths and passions. While mentors can help connect mentees to people in their fields who can then help them climb the corporate ladder, this is not their primary role. 

    Mentors are generally motivated by the desire to give back and leave a legacy by building up someone they believe in. They provide constructive criticism but are ultimately in their mentee’s corner, dedicated to their professional development. As a mentee, knowing you have someone who can provide sound advice when the road gets bumpy en route to achieving your ultimate career goal, no matter what stage you’re at, is proven to be a valuable component of workplace success. 

    According to research conducted by the Center of Creative Leadership, those who are mentored are better prepared for promotions, have greater career success, satisfaction and workplace impact and are more innovative, creative and resilient when challenges arise.


    The strength of sponsorship
    While some aspects of mentorship and sponsorship may intersect, sponsorship takes career support a step further. You know how hard you work and how much you bring to the company, but do those in positions of power know your worth? A sponsor ensures that key decision-makers know your name, your talents and contributions and therefore keep you top of mind when it comes time for raises, promotions and greater responsibilities.

    Sponsorship is particularly important when it comes to the promotion of historically marginalised groups in the workplace. Those that may in the past been overlooked – such as women in male-dominated workplaces – need someone in their corner. Sponsors are generally in a leadership position within the same company as their sponsees and as such, have a substantial degree of influence. Their opinion matters.

    For someone in a position of power to want to sponsor someone, they need to believe in them, knowing they can help the company achieve their goals. Once they recognise someone’s potential, they become invested in their success and professional development, actively working to identify opportunities and advance their careers within the organisation. They connect those they support to the right people, ensuring they’re invited to important meetings, conferences or networking events and introducing them to the right people and providing learning opportunities. They keep upper management informed about their achievements and value and defend them when their decisions are questioned.

    Experts at BetterUp, an AI-driven platform that helps people and businesses grow personally and professionally through coaching, argue that a successful sponsorship should go beyond pairing those who come from the same or similar backgrounds. “Instead, the focus should be on placing sponsees with potential sponsors who can help them advance their careers. By sponsoring diverse people, leaders in organisations can work to improve the diversity and inclusivity of their leadership team since sponsorships can give opportunities to advance careers.” It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. 

    While the country has made some gains in supporting women in business, access to funding for women-owned businesses in South Africa, continues to be a challenge. Financial sponsiship is often much harder to acccess for women than it is for men. Supporting a women owned business by providing financially is an effective way of helping them grow their business and is an important element of a country’s economic growth strategy.

    Women in business are that much more successful when they have the strength to recognise that they cannot do it alone. Having both a mentor – who empowers and guides them, and a sponsor – who ensures that those in power know their worth, is invaluable when it comes to standing out in the workplace – for all the right reasons.