What can you do to increase diversity in our (academic) sector?

Willa Huston, Charles Cranfield, Shari Forbes, and Andy Leigh

Read the full article here

There is lots of evidence and increasing awareness that workplaces that are genuinely diverse and inclusive are often found to not only be more innovative and successful, but also report their staff having higher levels of wellbeing and happiness. Diverse and inclusive workplace cultures are hard to achieve as shifting embedded culture and practise takes time and there needs to be a willingness to change from upper management, in particular. In academia, the competitive nature of funding and publishing are a common excuse used to de-rail conversations and attempts to install new flexible, inclusive practises, or to recruit a more diverse profile of employees. Even though there are more and more reports and evidence of bias influencing recruitment, conference and seminar invitations, funding review panels and publication peer review. We know that increasing diversity and inclusion is a moral imperative, but more than that, we know that it will benefit us all, even those already successful in academia.

The efforts of individuals can make a difference. We should not just rely on institutional practices. As a group of like-minded academics keen to make a difference to our workforce, we set out to reflect on our own practises and recognised that we were engaging, in an ad hoc, way with sponsorship. This led us to explore and develop a plan for how we can recognise and strategically use sponsorship as a tool to help increase diversity and inclusivity in our own organisations, academia, and the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths, and medicine) sector.

We note that sponsorship is just one activity, and we acknowledge our contribution is just one element that alone will not make a difference. We highlight that there are many national, institutional, and individual efforts to address diversity and inclusion in STEMM. It seems like an exciting time where a whole of sector change is underway. We hope to see an increased culture of diversity and inclusion across academia during our careers.

Examples of individual initiatives include

  • #just1action4WiS – Dame Professor Athene Donald’s list of actions (many of which a sponsor might do)
  • Inspiring and increasing awareness- such as Professor Imogen Coe’s (@imogenrcoephd) TEDx talk ‘change the numbers’[1] (see TEDx talk)
  • Showcasing female role models in STEM, e.g. Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott’s work [2] (blog, @lappinscott)
  • Professor Jenny Martin’s guide to achieving gender equity in conferences (show-me-the-policy, blog, @Jenny_STEM [3]),
  • And social media movements, like the anti-sexual harassment movement commenced by Tarana Burke, and amplified by Alyssa Mylano (#MeToo), has also been taken up by women in STEMM (#MeTooSTEM) [4] (including Assistant Professor BethAnn McLaughlin, Tarana Burke, and Dr Sherry Marts who won the “2018 MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award).

*note, one of these advocates has recently had a tenure decision overturned (see article here), and we highlight that there are penalties for advocacy activities that sponsors should try to protect their protégé’s against such risks.

So what exactly is sponsorship?

Even if you aren’t sure what sponsorship is, you are probably already doing it!

Sponsorship is not the same as mentorship, which is defined by psychosocial support. Sponsorship is proactive and instrumental in helping to advance a career [5]. As a sponsor, you will use your influence and facilitate opportunities that benefit your protégé [6].

Sponsorship often benefits from a previous or existing mentoring relationship, as a sponsor is required to exert their influence to benefit and strategically position the protégé.

So what can we do about it?

You can sponsor now, and you probably already do. However, you should reflect and make sure you are sponsoring in a diverse and inclusive way. We term this ‘organic sponsorship’.  Whilst we talk about ‘leadershipand developing leaders in our article, we think everyone, at every level, can do some form of sponsorship, as we can’t leave sponsorship just up to our managers. We should all be trying to increase diversity and inclusion at every career stage and opportunity.

We also propose an institutional approach in our article. You could use your influence to convince leaders in your own institution to adopt a programmatic approach to enabling and supporting sponsorship. Of course, for an institutional approach to succeed, we recommend considering incentives, training (especially in unconscious bias and inclusive practises), professional development opportunities, and even diversity targets to complement and support an organisation-wide sponsorship program.

What are examples of sponsorship in academia?

We have created a list, by no means exhaustive, of the types of activities sponsors in academia might do. We hope, on this blog, to grow this list and start a conversation about sponsorship.

Sponsorship activities in academia could include:

  • Encouraging or facilitating the protégé to apply for strategic and positive development opportunities.
  • Taking opportunities to name, positively identify and recommend the protégé and their achievements when they are not present; for example, when academic leaders are talking with their peers and put forward their protégé’s name. This is an important activity, given previous reports of a backlash effect, or hidden penalties, some women experience when they self-advocate [7].
  • Specifically facilitating protection of the protégé from higher risk, or less supportive members of the senior executive.
  • Advocating within the institution for financial support for the protégé’s development, such as professional development programs or leadership training schemes.
  • Leveraging organisational commitment to support all protégés to participate in support programs, particularly professional coaching.
  • If organising, or asked to contribute to a conference or seminar program, putting forward the protégé to be an invited speaker or session Chair.
  • Ensuring that the protégé is invited as a member on institutional panels or delegations to other institutions.
  • Introducing the protégé to key international and national level leaders and showcasing their strengths.
  • Introducing and asking for invited seminar opportunities for the protégé when they are travelling into an area where the sponsor has networks.
  • Facilitating or providing opportunities for the person to ‘step up’ or temporarily act in senior roles, thus developing their leadership profile.
  • Providing/advocating for external opportunities.
  • Advising on access to allowances, salary loadings, and even lobbying on behalf of the protégé to have an additional salary loading or allowance if inequities relevant to peers are apparent. This approach has actually been reported to benefit sponsorship programs in industry [8].
  • Deliberately setting out to use one’s leadership role or profile to create opportunities for the protégé, such as:
    • introducing and recommending the protégé to industry, relevant government or public agency representatives;
    • implementing new leadership roles or committees to address needs in the institution and providing a leadership role for the protégé (e.g. deputy roles, committees around expanding areas such as diversity and inclusion)
  • Ensuring that the protégé is aware of and considered for professional development opportunities, such as leadership workshops, coaching, editorial roles, board membership, membership of external bodies, or leadership roles in professional associations. This action may include the need to encourage and even assist the protégé to apply for such opportunities directly in addition to bringing it to their attention.
  • Where roles tend to be based on networks and recommendations (e.g. editorial boards), advocating for the protégé to be invited to the role.
  • Encouraging the inclusion of the protégé as an investigator on large ventures that have room for multiple participants (like large grants/projects).
  • Providing opportunities for the protégé to take senior authorship on research publications.
  • Actively seeking to create diverse and gender balanced teams/research groups/committees that encourage each individual to mentor and support each other (we expect there may be some explicit requirements by the institution for diversity targets for formal executive teams or committees).

Summary and Call to Action

We hope that our blog and article have you thinking about sponsorship for inclusivity and diversity, whether you agree with our suggested action items or our overall plan to implement sponsorship within an institution. We invite comments or ideas of more ways to sponsor through this blog and look forward to sharing our own successes and failures with our peers in the future.


  1. Coe, I. TEDx Talk: Change the Numbers. 2016; Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63xTTTYWEQ8.
  2. Lappin-Scott, L. To get more women in STEM little girls need better role models. The Conversation 2017; Available from: https://theconversation.com/to-get-more-women-in-stem-little-girls-need-better-role-models-70763.
  3. Martin, J.L., Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance. PLoS Computation Biology, 2014. 10: p. e1003903.
  4. #MeToo has moved beyond Hollywood and into STEM. Women of Colour Magazine 2018 [cited 14/09/2018; Available from: http://womenofcolor.online/article_list/metoo-has-moved-beyond-hollywood-and-into-stem/.
  5. Cao, J. and Y. Yang. What are Mentoring and Sponsoring and How do they Impact Organizations? Cornell University, ILR School 2013 [cited 2017 22/06/2017]; Available from: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/student/30/.
  6. Helms, M.M., D.E. Arfken, and S. Bellar, The importance of mentoring and sponsorship in women’s career development. SAM Advanced Management Journal 2016. 81(3): p. 4.
  7. Workplace Gender Equity Agency, A.G., Supporting careers: mentoring or sponsorship? Perspective Paper. 2016.
  8. Hewlett, S.A., Forget a mentor, find a sponsor: The new way to fast-track your career. 2013, Harvard: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

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