Role models, mentors, and sponsors – what’s in a name?

Contributed by Anita Krishnamurthi and Andrea Lattanner, National Girls Collaborative Board Members

Professional networks and mentoring have long been acknowledged to play critical roles in helping people progress in their careers. “Old boys’ networks” have been around forever and have helped many men advance in their careers and progress into positions of influence. The networks, in turn, allow them to lend a helping hand to the young men who come behind them. As we have become more intentional about diversifying workplaces, this idea of deploying networks and mentoring as tools to help a more diverse group of people advance has gained prominence. For the past 18 months of lockdowns and working from home during the pandemic, there have been few opportunities to meet people and network, or take on in-person work experiences, internships, and apprenticeships. The ways we naturally break down silos and connect in person has also decreased, calling for a more intentional approach to connecting with others for advice and career guidance and to learn from each other. While the need holds true in all career paths and for many minoritized groups, we focus on mentoring women in STEM fields through the Global Girls Collaborative.

Recognizing that attitudes are set early, many STEM mentoring programs and platforms have been developed. Several of these initiatives start when young girls are still in school and making choices and decisions about what they’d like to study. But what is mentoring, and what does it involve? To understand this, we need to dig into some of the terms often used interchangeably in this context: role models, mentors, and sponsors. These are all vital roles, but they are different and lie along the spectrum of support we may want and need.

Role models are people who we might look to for inspiration and want to emulate. They may display certain exemplary behaviors or be engaged in work that might capture our interest and imagination. Role models open our eyes to the possibilities of what individuals can do, which can help remove inhibitions we might have in undertaking that type of work. Role models don’t have to be someone you get to know personally; you may have a chance to meet them or simply admire and imitate them from afar. Hence in setting up any effort to showcase role models, it is crucial to ensure you find individuals who look and represent diverse groups to break down stereotypes of who does particular kinds of work.

The stories described in She Speaks Science provide examples of diverse female role models who pursued their interests. The FabFems directory from the National Girls Collaborative is another resource that showcases a range of role models that girls and young women can explore.

Belinda Wilkes She Speaks Science Naomi Davis She Speaks Science

Seeing The Universe in a New Light, by
Dr Belinda Wilkes for She Speaks Science.

Escaping a war to conquer the skies, art by
Naomi Davies for She Speaks Science.

A mentor is someone you develop a personal relationship with and engage with regularly. They are usually more experienced than (or have a different experience from) the mentee and can use that experience and knowledge to guide the mentee. They meet with the mentee to provide a sounding board and offer advice on navigating situations in their life and career. Mentoring is thus a more intense and personal relationship than a role model, although a mentor can also be a role model through their words and actions. If you are a working professional, an ideal mentor would not be in your management chain, so you can freely discuss sensitive issues.

It is important to remember that mentoring is not always a one-way relationship. Mentees also have knowledge and perspectives to share, and “reverse mentoring” is becoming more common. For example, a more senior mentor might learn a great deal from their younger mentee about how people from different generations think about various issues. The experience might help the senior person as they work with diverse people in their workplace. The PENTA mentoring program is an example of a tiered mentoring scheme—five tiers of girls and women ranging from school students to senior executives are paired up and mentor each other for five months.

A sponsor differs from a mentor in acting and representing you to others who can open doors, network and provide introductions, and spend their own political and social capital on your behalf. A sponsor helps promote and represent you when you are not present and advocates for you when those holding power or making decisions question qualifications. Whether you are applying for an internship, a summer job, an apprenticeship, or needing an advancement in your career, a sponsor is an individual who will make your case for you. But how do you find a sponsor? As Glenn Leibowitz shares in this article on Inc.com, you must first generate performance currency by delivering high-quality impact that can be seen by others; and second, generate relationship currency to build the right relationships and reciprocity. This will allow a potential sponsor to feel comfortable enough about your abilities that they want to represent you. When you’ve identified a sponsor, share your goal with them and ask for their support in that goal – would they write a letter of recommendation or share your contributions with the leadership team? Securing a sponsor does take energy and time and having one can significantly impact your journey.

There will be overlaps between these roles, but it can be liberating and less work if one person does not have to fill all the needs and niches for support. Women are also often asked to invest significant amounts of time in volunteer service roles over and above their technical roles. So we need to remember that men can also be great mentors and sponsors and are crucial to engage as allies as they are often well placed to help. We all need role models, mentors, and sponsors to inspire, guide, and champion us throughout our careers. So let’s all join in the effort to have each other’s backs and ensure that every woman gets to live up to her potential.

Anita KrishnamurthiAnita Krishnamurthi is a passionate advocate for equitable access to education and science with a deep commitment to young people. Anita most recently served as Head of Education and Learning at Wellcome Trust, a global health philanthropy based in London. Prior to that, she worked in Washington, DC, in various positions, such as Vice President for STEM Policy at the Afterschool Alliance and Program Manager at NASA Headquarters. She holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics and moved into a career focusing on STEM education and informal learning. Anita is very active in mentoring women at various career stages and has lived in India, the US, and the UK. She currently serves as the Secretary of the Board of Directors for the National Girls Collaborative.

Andrea LattannerAndrea Lattanner is a social impact strategist with a bias for action specializing in leading high-impact change at Microsoft. Through her eleven-year career at Microsoft and four-year career at NMA, she’s driven programs and partnerships focused on public housing, education, workforce development, and employee giving. She currently serves as the Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the National Girls Collaborative.