February 28, 2023

What is Sponsorship and why isn't it more commonplace?

The question we often find ourselves asking each other is “how do we move the needle further and faster?” It’s a question which is echoed in board rooms and management meetings across financial services, particularly when considering the number of women holding c-suite and non-executive roles. It was this desire for sustainable and more impactful change, which led us to launch a pilot sponsorship scheme in 2022.  


Sponsorship has the ability to unlock doors whilst also being a key component of diversity and inclusion efforts. In a recent study by Oliver Wyman, 95% of respondents (made up of 160 female executives) cited a sponsor was critical to their career success. Sponsors can smooth the path for their protégés, providing cover to take on new projects and to build confidence whilst also counteracting the unique barriers that women face [1]. Sponsorship is an undeniably powerful tool when it comes to furthering gender equity as long as it can be employed correctly. To create a meaningful sponsor protégé relationship there requires an understanding of how it differs to mentorship and the impact of affinity bias.  


Affinity bias refers to the human behaviour of bonding more easily and quickly with someone who is reflective of you and your life experience. It can manifest itself in plenty of ways but in the workplace, it has the potential to create considerable barriers for those who do not reflect the demographic majority. With an understanding of the affinity bias, comes an equal appreciation that those who do fit into the majority (in most cases white men) have still achieved their status through merit and skill. Rather, it nods to the ability and ease with which people can build impactful connections and networks. Any senior leader will reference the value of their network either for use as a sounding board when considering a role change or for finding new opportunities, our American members often referring to it as a ‘Personal Board of Directors’. The value of a strong network, built of people who have the clout to boost your standing alongside your talent, is non-negotiable. It is here we return to the understanding of affinity bias.  


If we focus on the widely documented gender imbalance at senior leadership, the lack of women comparative to men results in women having a very different experience of sponsorship to their male counterparts [2]. Simply put, if there are less people who are reflective of you at a senior level, the less likely you are to find someone to act as a sponsor. Given this imbalance of genders at the top, those women who are successful at finding a sponsor are more likely to have one with less clout than their male counterparts. In addition, sponsorship often comes into play in informal structures which tend to compound the issue (see the frequently cited golf course). Clearly, it is a difficult landscape for women to navigate to ensure that connections are meaningful for career advancement but also to ensure that those women at the top do not suffer from burnout as they desperately try to support those coming up behind them. [3]


Last year, ISC Group completed a small research project with a Masters student from Cranfield University into the current development programmes available to women through their employers. Of the group interviewed, who came from a cross-section of insurance companies and brokers in the UK, the majority voiced that although they had informal mentors, they did not have sponsors. If given the opportunity, the participants would appreciate having both types of guidance and support but stressed the importance of it coming through a formalised scheme with a greater degree of supervision and goal setting.  


The ISC sponsorship scheme was designed to analyse the potential benefits of sponsorship specifically for those in insurance and reinsurance whilst also providing a clear avenue for men to become more actively involved in allyship. To facilitate both aspects, ISC members who applied were paired with men from their organisation to act as their sponsor. The twelve-month pilot is coming to an end and the takeaways are clear. They echo all that has been said here however there remains a lack of provision and a lack of understanding between the difference of mentorship and sponsorship. We are planning to change that.  

[1] https://www.oliverwyman.com/content/dam/oliver-wyman/v2/publications/2021/jan/Oliver-Wyman-Women-in-Leadership-Making-the-Invisible-Visible.pdf  

[2] Jill Armstrong, Women Collaborating with Men, inclusive networking and sponsorship  

[3] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace


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