White-male mentorship brings a premium, and it’s hurting women


Want to get ahead at work? The latest in business and management research says get a sponsor: someone who has enough clout to successfully advocate for you to the people that matter, a person who will recommend you for an opportunity that you didn’t know existed. In other words, a powerful ally on the corporate battlefield.

Not all sponsors get the same results, however. New research by salary website PayScale found that employees who have a white male advocate often end up with higher pay, and most of those employees are white men. Women-particularly black and Hispanic women, are the least likely to have such a lucrative connection.

Over the years, various studies, including one published in the Harvard Business Review, have linked sponsors to career growth. Access to powerful networks at work is directly connected to plum assignments, promotions and raises. But this research is the first to link sponsorship directly to pay, as well as to gender and racial pay gaps that bedevil the American workplace.

Conducted in the first half of 2019, PayScale’s survey asked more than 98,000 people to disclose their salaries and details about their workplace advocate, if they had one. Around two-thirds of those polled provided data on the race or gender of their sponsor, in addition to their pay.  

Some 56.7% of all respondents reported having a sponsor at work. Of white male respondents who said they have a sponsor, 90% said their sponsor was white. Among black and Hispanic women who said they have a sponsor, only 60% said their sponsor was white. A study released earlier this year said that most executives choose protégés who look like them.

Gravitating to someone who looks like you isn’t inherently bad. But given that white men hold around 70% of C-suite- and senior vice president-level positions in the US, this “mini-me” phenomenon perpetuates a lack of diversity at the highest levels of business. And it gets worse, because PayScale’s data suggest it’s also contributing to the pay gap. 

The survey found that black women who have a black sponsor reported making 11.3% less than black women with a white sponsor. Hispanic women with a Hispanic sponsor make 15.5% less than Hispanic women with a white sponsor, the survey found. Black and Hispanic women who have no sponsor at all are paid 5% less than those who do. 

“Unless we have those folks pulling us up, it’s hard to make it to that level.”

Several women of color in a variety of industries told Bloomberg that they’ve relied on white men for career advancement because they’re often the gatekeepers to power.

“Unless we have those folks pulling us up, it’s hard to make it to that level,” said Elizabeth Diep, a partner at PwC who was born in the Dominican Republic.

Several women talked about how their sponsors gave them access to internal roles that were opening up, assignments and even pay data. Bree Jenkins, a former engineer at Disney who now works in operations at the Hayward Collegiate Charter School, said one of her white male sponsors offered up his networks and connections. Jenkins, one of three black women in her graduating class from the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, told him she wanted to expand her network to Pixar. He made it happen, and now she has a close connection at the world famous animation studio.

Diep, 41, met her sponsor, PwC Global Head of Asset Management Mike Greenstein, through Breakthrough Leadership, a two-day program that pairs women on the partner track with senior leaders. Diep wondered what they would have in common, but one of the focuses of the internal program was to help her and Greenstein, a white man 13 years her senior, build a rapport. Diep eventually made partner, with his guidance.

Enabling more women like Diep to climb the ranks at such places as PwC is critical to closing racial and gender pay gaps, the ultimate barometers of inequality in the workplace. PwC started Breakthrough Leadership in 2012, and has increased the diversity of its partners by 18% in the past four years. Of the 249 new partners at the professional services firm this year, 47% are women or people of colour. 

But Diep’s experience is far from the rule. Less than 25% of US companies offer formal mentorship programs, according to an April survey by the Society of Human Resource Management. 

Additionally, research by the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard found that black women in the workplace are perceived by others as less qualified or competent-even if their performance suggests otherwise. Women of colour contend it often takes a white-male sponsor to overcome the unconscious racial and gender biases of his C-suite peers. 

“I would never advise a black woman to not seek a black female sponsor or mentor.”

US Representative Jahana Hayes, Democrat of Connecticut, the first black person elected to represent her district, said she had a powerful sponsor on her side who did just that. Democrat Chris Murphy, the junior US senator from her state, gave her the “credibility to walk into the room” and run for office, she said. 

Cybersecurity professional Camille Stewart said she has plenty of sponsors who elevate her work and advocate for her promotion. But as a black woman, she’s had men “literally stand in front of me to close me out of the conversation.” It takes other white men, she said, to open up that physical space.

But some warn that other considerations are important in seeking out a sponsor. Laura Roberts, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, has studied the career paths of black female executives and found that many talk about the importance of white male champions. Still, she said, people with similar backgrounds and experiences can help each other navigate the workplace. 

“I would never advise a black woman to not seek a black female sponsor or mentor,” Roberts said.

But people of colour in positions of power face their own gender- and race-based roadblocks, said Ruchika Tulshyan, a consultant who advises companies on diversity and inclusion. When Tulshyan, who is from Singapore, worked at a technology company, she said that her mentor was one of the few other people of colour working there. Even with him on her side, she felt her career stalled. She eventually left that company and now works on her own. 

“He didn’t have as much influence,” she said. “When I think back now, I wonder: What would it have been like if I had a white manager?”

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