Sponsors: Valuable Allies Not Everyone Has

Last year as part of our ongoing inclusion, diversity and equity efforts, PayScale implemented a sponsorship program. The program paired lower-level or newly hired employees, called protégés, with more senior people, called sponsors, who could actively help promote the protégé’s career.

Lilyanna and Karaka are two PayScalers who opted to participate in the program. Lilyanna was a relatively new hire in the finance department. Karaka had been at PayScale for 10 years and was a director on the product team. On the surface, they may not have seemed to have much in common. Lilyanna is a numbers person who tends to be a bit introverted. Karaka is a big-picture person who is as comfortable presenting to 300 people as she is talking to one. Over the next several months, they met every other week and discovered that they had far more in common than one would think by just looking at the surface. They are both focused, hardworking and incredibly smart people.

At some point, Lilyanna had the opportunity to work on a major product strategy initiative. It was a bit of a stretch for her, but Karaka encouraged her, reviewed her work and gave her pointers. Lilyanna’s success with that project became one factor that led to her promotion. Afterward, she was given other assignments working to bring together the finance and product teams. Karaka helped her by introducing her to people and highlighting areas where she could fill a void. Today, Lilyanna plays a vital role working across the product and finance teams at PayScale and she got promoted again. This all happened in less than a year.

The Difference Between Mentors and Sponsors

“Get a mentor” has long been standard advice for students and young professionals. The benefits of having a mentor range from having someone who can lend a sympathetic ear to having someone who can help map out your career. In turn, these can translate into career growth.

In recent years, however, the conversation regarding career allies has shifted from the benefits of having mentors to the advantages of having sponsors. The key difference between mentors and sponsors is that mentors give advice while sponsors actively seek to provide opportunities. Mentors can be akin to career coaches that help their mentees navigate difficult situations. They are usually more seasoned professionals, but they do not have to be in the same organization as their mentee. Sponsors, however, are decision makers within a protégé’s organization and are often in the protégé’s reporting chain. They ensure their protégé is selected for prime assignments, gets promotions and receives pay increases.

Karaka and Lilyanna’s relationship is a good example of a sponsor and protégé. At the start of their relationship, Karaka was an influential person at PayScale. Lilyanna, on the other hand, had concrete goals she wanted to accomplish but wasn’t sure how to navigate working towards them. Because of her seniority and tenure at PayScale, Karaka was able to not just advise Lilyanna, but to actively aid her in meeting her goals.

For women, particularly women of color, having someone in a position of power who will go to the mat for you can be an effective way to combat systemic bias and break through the glass ceiling to positions of power and higher pay. When choice assignments or opportunities for promotion come up, a sponsor can put forward their protégé and, since sponsors have clout and are in a position of authority, others will give their protégé opportunities they might not have otherwise.

In this study, we examine who has workplace sponsors, the characteristics of sponsors and the benefits of sponsorship. We find that while men and women report roughly equal rates of having a sponsor, women’s sponsorship rates vary greatly by race/ethnicity. Black or African American and Hispanic women have the lowest rates of reporting that they have someone who is advocating for them within their organizations.

Using PayScale’s salary survey, we also investigate whether it pays to have a sponsor. We find that there is a “Sponsorship Premium,” however, the boost to your salary varies depending on who your sponsor is. Protégés who have male and/or white sponsors have larger Sponsorship Premiums. Here too we find that women of color are at a disadvantage since they have higher rates of reporting that their sponsor is a woman and non-white.

Women of color face many unique challenges in the workplace. Having a mentor who can relate to those difficulties and who can help navigate them has its benefits. However, mentorship and sponsorship in the workplace aren’t the same thing. While you may seek a mentor of your same race/ethnicity and sex, having a white man as your sponsor can really pay off.

Who Has a Sponsor

Between December 2018 and May 2019, over 98,000 respondents to PayScale’s salary survey were asked about their current position and salary. In addition, they were asked if they had someone who is advocating for them within their organization. If they answered yes, they were asked about that person’s role, gender and race/ethnicity[efn_note]In the survey question, we used “advocating” since “sponsoring” could easily be confused with sponsoring a work visa.[/efn_note].

Overall, 56.7 percent of respondents said they had a sponsor. When we look at the data by gender, the numbers do not change greatly. Roughly 57.4 percent of men said they have a sponsor, while 56.0 percent of women did[efn_note]This finding is at odds with those of others who find that women are less likely to have a sponsor than men. While this report is based on a far larger sample, the other findings are based on more detailed surveys and interviews. These differences likely account for some of the differences our findings.[/efn_note].

Our data by race/ethnicity shows that there are some large differences between groups. For most groups, at least 60 percent of those surveyed said they have an advocate at work. However, only 55 percent of black and Hispanic women reported having a sponsor. For comparison, 62.5 percent of white men reported having an advocate in the workplace. Since our data tends to overrepresent white-collar workers, we limited this sample to workers with at least a bachelor’s degree (see Methodology for more details.) Workers with lower levels of education may have different sponsorship patterns.

Having a Sponsor Pays: The Sponsorship Premium

These large differences in sponsorship are important because those who report having a sponsor also tend to be paid more. In other words, there is a Sponsorship Premium. Overall, those who have a sponsor are paid 11.6 percent more than those who do not. For men, the Sponsorship Premium is even higher: 12.3 percent. For women it is 10.2 percent.

When we control for various compensable factors such job title, education, location, etc., the Sponsorship Premium shrinks but is still notable. We call this the controlled Sponsorship Premium, and it is 2 percent. In other words, those with a sponsor earn 2 percent more than similarly qualified people without one. The Sponsorship Premium remains larger for men than women even after controlling for other compensable factors: 2.3 percent for men and 1.7 percent for women.

The Sponsorship Premium Varies by Race/Ethnicity

The data by race/ethnicity, which is restricted to those with at least a bachelor’s degree, suggest that Hispanic and black women have the most to gain from sponsorship. Hispanic women with a sponsor earn 6.1 percent more than Hispanic women without one. Black women with a sponsor earn 5.1 percent more than black women without one. On the other hand, Asian women with a sponsor earn about the same as those without one. For comparison, the Sponsorship Premium for white men is 4 percent, while for white women it is 2 percent.

The controlled Sponsorship Premium does not follow the same pattern. When we control for various compensable factors, the Sponsorship Premium is largest for white men. Their controlled Sponsorship Premium is 2.2 percent, meaning that white men with a sponsor make 2.2 percent more than similarly qualified white men without a sponsor. Black women have the next highest controlled Sponsorship Premium at 2 percent, followed by Hispanic women at 1.5 percent and white women at 1.3 percent. For Asian women, the controlled impact on pay of having a sponsor is slightly positive. Asian women with a sponsor earn 0.9 percent more than Asian women without one.

sponsorship premium by race

We are unable to pinpoint why Asian women seem to benefit less from having a sponsor than women of other groups. One potential explanation is that Asian women tend have small or positive wage gaps relative to white men and so may see less of a monetary benefit from having a sponsor than women of other groups. Another potential issue is that the group “Asian” includes people from various ethnicities that are not treated equally in the workplace. It could be that some Asian ethnic groups that tend to face more challenges in the workplace benefit more than others but we are unable to capture this. Further quantitative and qualitative studies could help uncover why sponsorship does not seem to benefit Asian women like other groups.

Sponsorship Can Have Benefits Beyond Pay

The benefits of having a sponsor can go beyond pay. When we look at the data by job level, those higher up the corporate ladder tend to have higher rates of sponsorship. Fifty-five percent of individual contributors (i.e. those who do not manage others) say they have a sponsor. Each step up the organizational ladder sees an increase in sponsorship: 59.2 percent of managers, 63.1 percent of directors and 65.5 percent of executives say they have a workplace sponsor.

sponsorship by protege job levelWhile we are unable to directly measure the impact of having a sponsor on job level, our data complement other research that shows that sponsorship accelerates your career. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett finds that entry-level people who have a sponsor are 167 percent more likely to have gotten a stretch assignment. Researchers Herminia Ibarra, Nancy Carter and Christine Silva find that sponsorship leads to promotions.

Both of these findings were true for Lilyanna. Karaka, her sponsor, pointed out an opportunity for her to work on something that was beyond what she had been doing. Lilyanna’s success in that stretch assignment contributed to her promotion and led to more complex and strategic projects. Her success on these projects, in turn, led to an additional promotion.

Who Sponsors Whom?

Sponsors typically sponsor those in their own reporting chains. Nearly three-fourths of all respondents who say they have an advocate say that their direct manager is their sponsor, while an additional 16.3 percent of protégés said that their manager’s manager was their sponsor. Only 10.5 percent said it was someone outside their department.

For the most part, this trend is consistent across demographics. Over 70 percent of protégés in each demographic group we looked at said that their direct manager was their sponsor, with the exception of black women. Only 68.3 percent of black women who are protégés said that their direct manager was their sponsor. Black women, however, had higher rates of saying that their manager’s manager was their sponsor – 20.3 percent of protégés selected this option.

Protégés’ gender is typically the same as their sponsor. Overall, 57.4 of protégés who reported their sponsor’s gender said that they were a man. However, 77.1 percent of male protégés said they had a male sponsor while only 40.4 percent of female protégés reported the same.

Race/ethnicity also tends to match between sponsors and their protégés. Over 90 percent of white men and women protégés who reported the race/ethnicity of their sponsor said that they were also white. Women protégés of other racial/ethnic groups were far less likely to report that their sponsor was white. Just over half of black and Hispanic women protégés reported having white sponsors: 58.8 percent and 59.4 percent, respectively.

Having a Sponsor Pays, Especially if He Is a White Man

It is clear from our research that who your sponsor is impacts the Sponsorship Premium. Sponsorship increases pay for all groups but having a white man as a sponsor tends to lead to the largest pay increases.

sponsorship premium sponsor genderFemale protégés with a woman sponsor earn 14.6 percent less than women who have a male sponsor. When we control for various compensable factors, female protégés with female sponsors still earn 0.7 percent less.

The benefit of having a male sponsor is not limited to women though. Male protégés who have a female sponsor earn 8.7 percent less than male protégés whose sponsors are men. After controlling for various compensable factors, men with female sponsors make 1 percent less than similarly qualified men whose sponsors are men.

female sponsor premium by raceWomen of color who have a person of the same race/ethnicity as their sponsor benefit far less than those who have someone who is white. Hispanic female protégés with Hispanic sponsors make 15.5 percent less than Hispanic women with white sponsors. After controlling for various compensable factors, this shrinks to 2.1 percent, but the gap remains. Black female protégés who have black sponsors make 11.3 percent less than those who have white sponsors. After controlling for various compensable factors, this shrinks to 1.2 percent. Finally, Asian female protégés with Asian sponsors earn 1.4 percent less than those with white sponsors. When we control for compensable factors, Asian women with Asian sponsors make 1.7 percent less than those with white sponsors.

In some respects, it is not surprising that those who have white men as sponsors tend to see more financial rewards than those who have women and/or people of color as sponsors. Research has shown that there are more men named “John” in top executive positions than there are women in executive positions in general. People of color are similarly few and far between in the upper echelon of society. Even when they do make it to the top, gender and racial pay gaps persist.

Research also shows that women and minorities that advocate for other women and minorities are penalized with worse performance reviews. Given this and other obstacles that women and/or people of color face in the workplace, it is not surprising that protégés sponsored by white men have the highest Sponsorship Premiums.

Be an Ally, Be a Sponsor

Lilyanna is not the only one who has benefited from having someone advocate for them in the workplace. Our data shows that those who have a sponsor make more than those who don’t. However, who your sponsor is impacts how much of a benefit you will see from having a sponsor. Those who have white men as sponsors tend to make the most. Being an ally and a sponsor can help reduce the racial wage gap across some organizations.

For junior-level women and/or people of color, having a mentor of your same gender or race/ethnicity who can relate to the obstacles you face in the workplace is invaluable. They can be a sympathetic ear who knows how the “innocent” comment made by a colleague was a microaggression. They can relate to being the only woman and/or non-white person at the table. However, when it comes to sponsorship, i.e. having a higher-up at your organization that will go to the mat for you, there are benefits of having a white man in your corner – namely more money.

Our research also highlights an important way that white male allies can actively start to break down centuries of systemic bias in the workplace. White men can actively seek to sponsor women and/or people of color in their organizations. This requires actively resisting our natural tendency to gravitate towards others who look like us.

The good news is that you can start by chatting with a junior employee while you’re both getting coffee. As Karaka put it, “It starts with building a relationship, finding something you have in common, and going from there.”

As you build trust in a new workplace relationship, look for ways that you can be more than just a mentor. Can you encourage your protégé to take on a stretch project? Can you vouch for them with a colleague? These acts not only help out a promising junior colleague but also help your organization become a better place to work.


Between December, 2018 and May, 2019, over 98,000 respondents to PayScale’s salary survey answered the following questions.

  1. Do you feel that you have someone who is advocating for you within your organization (e.g. actively highlighting career opportunities, skill development)?
    1. Yes
    2. No
  2. (If yes to questions 1) Who is advocating for you? Please select one.
    1. My direct manager
    2. Someone in my department more senior than my manager
    3. Someone outside my department
  3. (If yes to question 1) What is the gender of your advocate?
    1. Female
    2. Male
    3. Prefer not to define
  4. (If yes to question 1) What is the race of your advocate?
    1. American Indian and Alaska Native
    2. Asian
    3. Black or African American
    4. Hispanic
    5. White
    6. Prefer Not to Answer
    7. Open text box

When we report data by race/ethnicity, we limit our sample to those with at least a bachelor’s degree. We do this because our data skew towards professional white-collar workers and the propensity for professional white-collar work is not equally distributed across races and ethnicity. By focusing on those with at least a college education, our comparison across races represent a more apples-to-apples comparison.

Due to sample size issues, we are unable to report pay data by race/ethnicity for every group.

When we report overall numbers, we include observations that did not report their gender or race.


Median Pay: The median pay is the national median (50th Percentile) total cash compensation (TCC). Half the people in the sample earn more than the median, while half earn less.

Race/Ethnicity: Respondents to our salary survey were asked about their race/ethnicity but were not required to answer to complete the survey. They could choose one or more of the following options:

  • American Indian and Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Hispanic
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander
  • White
  • Prefer Not to Answer

For our analysis on pay race, we report data only for Asian, black or African American and Hispanic respondents due to sample size concerns. We also only report data for respondents who chose exactly one of the options above.

Sponsorship Premium – To measure the impact of having a sponsor on pay, we use two measures – the uncontrolled and controlled Sponsorship Premium. The uncontrolled Sponsorship Premium does not control for other compensable factors. It is the percent difference in median pay between those who do and do not have a sponsor.

The controlled Sponsorship Premium uses PayScale’s proprietary compensation model to control for various compensable factors such as job level, education, location etc.

When we calculate the Sponsorship Premium, we calculate it for:

  • Those who have a sponsor versus those that don’t;
  • Those whose sponsor is not their direct manager versus those whose is;
  • Those whose sponsor is a woman versus those whose sponsor is a man;
  • Those whose sponsor is not white versus those whose sponsor is the same race/ethnicity.

Positive numbers indicate an increase in pay relative to the reference group. Negative numbers represent a decrease in pay relative to the reference group.