One of the standard pieces of career advice often given to young professionals is to find a mentor. While it's true that great mentors can help you to navigate your professional journey, data shows that it's actually the impact of workplace "sponsors" that can propel your career forward.
Wendy Brown, director of content marketing at PayScale, tells CNBC Make It that mentors "are the people you go to for advice on how to navigate a tricky situation or how to think about moving up in your career." Sponsors, meanwhile, have more of a direct impact, because they "advocate for you in situations where you're not necessarily there and they work with you on how you can move forward, get promoted or get involved in projects that you're interested in."
Today, working Americans who have a sponsor are paid 11.6% more than those who don't have a sponsor, according to PayScale's recent report, "Sponsors: Valuable Allies Not Everyone Has." The same report found that in a survey of more than 98,000 respondents, roughly 60% of people say that they, in fact, have a sponsor at work.
But not all sponsors' impact is the same.
When that data was broken down by race and gender, it became clear that women of color are least likely to have a workplace sponsor, and also that the race and gender of your sponsor can hugely impact how much you earn.
Compared to the 62.5% of white men who reported that they have a workplace sponsor, roughly 55% of black and Hispanic women reported that they have a sponsor at work. Black women who have black sponsors make 11.3% less than those who have white sponsors. Hispanic women who have Hispanic sponsors make 15.5% less than those with white sponsors.
Women who have a female sponsor make an average of 14.6% less than women who have a male sponsor. And men who have a female sponsor make an average of 8.7% less than other men who have a male sponsor.
Brown, who says she's not surprised by the results, says these numbers point to several different issues that need to be addressed in the workplace.
"In general, a lot of the people at executive levels are white males," she says. "And what we've found is that they tend to sponsor each other or people that look like them, which is one problem. Then we found that women of color a lot of times will go to other women of color for sponsorship and then they end up with less, which is not a good thing. All of it is part of unintended bias."
Even when women of color are at the executive level, their sponsorship still doesn't have as great an impact as the sponsorship of white men.
"I think this is one of the pieces of the puzzle that needs to be looked at and solved at companies in order to help close the gender pay gap problem," says Brown.
She suggests that any employer with a sponsorship program in place actively work to ensure that every employee is benefiting from that program. For women of color who don't work for a company with a sponsorship program, then Brown suggests they reach out and cultivate a relationship with a leader on their own.
"Take a look at what the leadership looks like in your company and then just reach out and ask to have coffee," she says. "Having some sort of back and forth conversation can be good, and it's always good to come with ideas where you're like, 'I've been working on this and I see that we've been doing it this way, but I think we could try something new.'"
She adds that "leaders are always appreciative of people who are thinking of ways to better the company."
Additionally, Brown says that white men, women and people of color should reach out to people who look different and come from a different background than they do when looking for sponsorship opportunities. "If people are more aware of this then they can sort of chip away at that unintended bias and eventually we can get to where we need to be where we have more diversity at the higher echelons of executive boards," she says.
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