When it comes to getting paid and recognized for your worth at work, it helps to have someone in the room who is on your side.
But new, infuriating research has found that the financial value of workplace allies depend on their race and gender. A survey from PayScale, a company that analyzes compensation data, found that having a white man as your advocate at work could boost your pay in a way that having a woman or a person of color in your corner does not.
How it literally pays to have a sponsor
For PayScale’s new salary survey, over 98,000 respondents were asked, “Do you feel that you have someone who is advocating for you within your organization (e.g. actively highlighting career opportunities, skill development)?” Those who said yes were asked to detail information on the race, gender and ethnicity of this ally, and results were limited to respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree.
Such advocates are also referred to as sponsors, but a sponsor is not necessarily a mentor. A mentor is a person that provides advice and assists with problems; they could be your mom or a person that is not even in your industry. A sponsor, on the other hand, is a more active participant in your career, and they are usually someone within your organization who can promote you for opportunities.
Employees who said they had sponsors tended to be paid more, according to the survey. After controlling for compensation factors like job titles, education and location, the researchers found men with sponsors earned 2.3% more than similarly qualified people, and women with sponsors earned 1.7% more than similarly qualified people.
“From our research, for every $100 a man earns, if that man were to have a sponsor, we would estimate that he would earn an additional $2.30,” said Sudarshan Sampath, director of research at PayScale. “Similar for women, for every $100 a woman earns, our research suggests she could expect to earn an additional $1.70 if they have a sponsor.”
These percentages may not seem large at first glance, but they can be significant over the course of one’s career or multiple salary increases. “This disparity can have a profound impact on future economic outcomes,” Sampath said.
And if you further extrapolate those lost earnings over a lifetime of savings or investments with compound interest, you can see how women and men without these sponsorship premiums lose out on valuable financial opportunities.
“The findings do really indicate the power of enduring white male fraternity in corporate contexts.”
– Soraya Chemaly
There’s a bias against sponsors who are women and people of color
You might assume that if you don’t have a sponsor, the best advice is to be proactive and get one. But just having a sponsor does not mean they will be effective for your career, and if you’re a woman, it does not mitigate that women still earn less of a sponsorship premium than men. Both men and women were sponsored at similar rates, but the gender and race of the sponsor also proved to be a significant factor.
If you were an employee with a woman as your advocate, that proved to be less effective than having a male advocate when it came to pay. After controlling for compensable factors, men with female sponsors earned one percent less than men whose sponsors were men. Similarly, women with female sponsors earned 0.7 percent less than women with male sponsors.
Black, Latina, and Asian women who had a sponsor of their same race or ethnicity financially benefited less than black, Latina and Asian women who had a white sponsor.
Does the race or the gender of your sponsor impact your pay more? PayScale said this question was beyond the scope of their research, with Sampath noting that “it’s impossible to definitively say whether race or gender has a bigger impact.“
Soraya Chemaly, the director of the Women’s Media Center speech project, said the study’s findings speak to the immense power of our “biases when it comes to issues of credibility, authority, objectivity.”
Previous research found that when women and people of color advocate for people who look like them, such sponsors are penalized in performance reviews and competency ratings.
The management researchers behind that study suggested in Harvard Business Review that “high status groups, mainly white men, are given freedom to deviate from the status quo because their competence is assumed,” but that is not true for others. Under this assumption of competence, a white man’s sponsorship can be seen as more valuable to a room of people that sees a white man’s authority as more valuable.
“When a white man, who is generally seen because of these biases as neutral and objective, when he advocates on behalf of other people, it somehow is more palatable institutionally,” Chemaly said. “In fact, it’s more of the same biases operating systemically.”
How to be impactful when white men still define success
The implication that a white male sponsor was financially more effective at getting their proteges more money should not make women and minorities give up on the process. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and author of “The Sponsor Effect: How to Be a Better Leader by Investing in Others,” noted that the PayScale survey did not delve into how the respondents understood the term.
“Someone can feel that they’re being sponsored or are a sponsor without fully understanding the three things that you need to be doing,” Hewlett said.
Hewlett said that if a sponsor accomplishes those three things –- believing in your value, advocating for you vigorously in contexts where you’re not present, and having your back so that you can take risks that may fail -– then it should not matter whether your sponsor is a man. “A woman who does those three things is as impactful as a man who does those three things,” she said.
Ultimately, it should not take a white man you know at work to get you that pay raise, but the PayScale study indicates that white male influence is still a powerful network in the workplace society. And even when men and women both have sponsors, a man will still benefit more.
“Who men know continues to define success,” Chemaly said. “I think the findings do really indicate the power of enduring white male fraternity in corporate contexts.”