March is Women’s History Month, when society acknowledges the small number of women who against the odds have ascended into leadership positions traditionally and historically held by men.
Although women have made great strides in the field of education and there are now more women than men serving as principals, there are still significant barriers to leadership. While women make up nearly 80 percent of K–12 educators, only 24 percent of superintendents are women, and it takes women longer to move from the assistant principal to principal or division head role.
Most often when the idea of female educational leaders is discussed, the conversation tends to focus on the importance of women in our field having mentorship. More specifically, seeking the advice of female leaders who have advanced in their careers, or how leveraging a male mentor can be instrumental in navigating opportunities in administrative roles that are typically held by men.
However, if women are to continue to advance and make progress, they will need more than mentors—instead, they will need sponsorship from those who are willing to speak their names in rooms that they may not even be in. In the call for more female leaders, those who are in positions of advocacy need to get clear on not conflating mentorship with sponsorship. The latter has the potential for transformational impact.
Mentorship vs. Sponsorship
Mentorship isn’t a game of high stakes. Mentors can offer support by giving advice or reviewing one’s materials to give assessment and critical feedback. Mentors also provide coaching for interviews and share what a day in the life of a particular position might look like. They also tend to make good professional references.
Mentorship is essential in providing guidance, but the efforts are often quiet in nature, happening passively behind the scenes. Mentors are helpful and essential on the journey to administration; however, the whispers of mentorship will not unlock the door of leadership in the same ways that sponsorship will.
A sponsor leverages their power and position as a means of support for the female leader they are supporting. Sponsors are strategic in their actions. They are not quiet in their levels of support. Sponsors create highly visible opportunities that allow for the woman they’re sponsoring to shine within the organization.
Sponsors are aware of your talents and gifts and want to ensure that others can see them, too. Sponsors want you to receive credit for your work and, in fact, are looking for ways to publicly acknowledge your efforts to others who may not be aware of the strengths you bring to the organization or what you’ve contributed thus far.
The Influence of Sponsors
Sponsors utilize their influence to propel women into positions of power. Through advocacy, sponsors advance female leadership. By leveraging their authority, sponsors not only can push for promotions but also can advocate for pay equity for women who are significantly underpaid compared with their male counterparts. Advocating for pay equity is an area where male voices and leadership are sorely needed.
Overall, what distinguishes mentors from sponsors is their ability to get loud for change. For example, instead of women having to plead their case for why they deserve a salary increase in situations where they are often positioned as too aggressive for doing so, male leaders would be forward-thinking in their approach, removing the barriers that perpetuate gender inequity and establishing practices that seek to close the gender pay gap.
Research shows that Black candidates face significant challenges in ascending into leadership.
Educational consultant and former school administrator Letreanna Jackson shared with me her thoughts on the imperative of sponsors: “Sponsorship is a vital form of advocacy necessary for female leaders, and specifically for Black women who are highly qualified and ready to lead and grow organizations. If we are going to see sustainable and innovative change in the field of education, female leaders with an eye toward a new future of teaching and leading will need sponsorship to propel forward.”
With the substantial pay gap that Black women and other women of color face in the workforce, as well as the persistent challenges to the rights of all women and girls within society, sponsors are needed now more than ever.
Sponsors understand that healthy school communities benefit from female leadership, and it’s something that needs to be cultivated daily. I challenge male leaders to extend their support beyond encouraging women to attend women’s empowerment conferences and instead provide strategic advocacy that is significant and meaningful.
As we consider the future and the potential for female leadership, sponsorship is an essential method that must be utilized to bring about fundamental change.