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Mentoring, sponsoring and diversity

Sponsorship opens additional doors for underrepresented veterinary professionals.

Mentoring, sponsoring and diversity
If we want to see more women and people of color ascending to leadership within veterinary medicine, we must sponsor them.

At a fall conference on women leaders in veterinary medicine, Dr. Samantha Morello from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine called for more sponsorship of women and minorities in veterinary medicine. I immediately tweeted out support —http://bit.ly/2Qx4SwO — which led to a short online discussion about the difference between mentoring and sponsoring and the effects of both on pipeline development and inclusion. Here are some additional thoughts.


We have all attended meetings and lectures on the importance of mentoring. Generally speaking, mentoring is a relationship between two people of similar interests in which one serves as a trusted adviser, counselor or trainer who offers social, academic and professional guidance to the other party.

These relationships can take many forms. They can come about informally or through a structured mentoring program. Mentor/mentee relationships can be short or long term, and they may focus holistically on personal and professional development or on a specific aspect of development.

Scholarly literature highlights the many positive effects of mentoring. Some outcomes include greater personal confidence, greater persistence and resilience, and improved career satisfaction. For members of underrepresented populations, mentoring offers a greater sense of inclusion and social capital, and when mentors are knowledgeable and understanding of unique challenges experienced by colleagues, mentorship can play a role in the reduction of barriers to success and in greater retention.

Of course, mentors benefit, too. They experience more career satisfaction and career advancement. They also acquire enhanced leadership and communication skills. Just as important, they gain greater knowledge and insights about diverse experiences, opinions and perspectives.

In short, mentoring is great for both personal and professional development.

That said, mentoring has limitations, particularly in professions like veterinary medicine that lack various kinds of diversity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the veterinary profession is majority female and only 8% non-Hispanic non-white. Within today’s colleges of veterinary medicine, the non-white student population is roughly 20%, women comprise more than 80% of the student body, and 1 in 4 students has a low-income background, is a first-generation college attendee or comes from a rural area.

The data suggest that mentoring in veterinary medicine heavily relies on cross-racial, gender and sociocultural experiences. The reality is this type of mentoring is not the naturally occurring phenomenon we need it to be. Our unconscious bias, often through no fault of our own, leads us to gravitate toward building mentoring relationships with people with whom we share racial, gender or general backgrounds.

To account for this, we frequently create more structured mentoring programs. Such mentoring relationships can and are often successful. Success in these cross-cultural relationships is characterized by mutual trust, high levels of empathy, cultural competency on the part of the mentor, dedicated time, and commitment. Even with these structured programs, many veterinary professionals from underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds often lack substantive mentorship opportunities.

The need for more veterinarians to be intentional about mentoring and about mentoring folks who do not look like them is critical to the success of diversity efforts across the profession. Beyond that, mentoring is broadly critical to the long-term success and viability of the profession. Mentoring grooms future professionals, future leaders and future business owners.


Mentorship is great, but sponsorship is also important. Sponsorship is like mentorship in that sponsors help facilitate the personal and professional development of individuals, but what differentiates sponsors from mentors is that sponsorship is more outward-facing.

Mentors tend to work privately with mentees on career goals and development. Sponsors are advocates for their protégés. Sponsors broker relationships on behalf of their colleagues, making introductions with important people. They recommend colleagues for new opportunities like promotions or positions elsewhere. They are sure to invite their colleagues to events where enhanced networking opportunities are available. Sponsors provide colleagues with visibility and exposure.

Sponsors leverage their name, position, networks and social capital on behalf of their colleagues. In short, sponsors open typically closed doors. Sponsorship is all about access.

Sponsorship is not new; it happens all the time. It happens with legacy admissions in higher education. It happens on the golf course. It happens in small rooms when names are considered for plum assignments. In spaces where influence is wielded, sponsorship is a frequent occurrence.

Sponsorship also has wider benefits than those experienced by the protégé. Studies show that sponsorship occurring within an organization or job site results in the sponsors being seen as organizational agents. This perspective means that employees who enjoy such relationships feel that the whole organization is supportive of their professional development.

The Relationship to Diversity

Mentorship prepares individuals to leverage the access and opportunities created and presented by the sponsor. Without sponsorship, a cadre of well-prepared professionals can and do compete in myriad ways but they might not have access to the same opportunities.

Sadly, like mentoring, sponsorship across the diversity spectrum is less likely to happen. We are more likely to stick our necks out for those who look like us and have similar backgrounds and credentials. But everyone needs mentoring, and the evidence is clear that mentoring benefits the mentor and mentee. Formal and informal mentoring is important to everyone’s individual development, but the reality is we cannot skill-build ourselves out of homogenous environments without being intentional.

Sponsorship is an activity that is both intentional and inclusive. Mentorship must be coupled with sponsorship if we are collectively committed to driving change. It is not enough to take your mentee out for coffee to talk; you need to invite others to coffee and introduce your mentee.

All this is true up and down the career ladder. If we want to see more women and people of color ascending to leadership within veterinary medicine, we must sponsor them. We have to recommend them for opportunities, campaign with and for them, and connect them with individuals who can help them ascend. If we want to see a diverse pipeline of veterinary students, we have to create access pathways for more diverse populations to learn about the profession through shadowing opportunities and referrals to after-school and summer programs.

The talent pool is deep in veterinary medicine, but some is hidden below the surface. Some of our best talent might never be seen or heard because of unconscious biases and our propensity to select the same or similar people. Mentoring is critical, but intentional sponsorship is what will help us see the kinds of diversity and inclusion we desire across the veterinary profession.

Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at http://bit.ly/2APLtk4.