Gender Disparities in Sponsorship—How They Perpetuate the Glass Ceiling | Health Disparities | JAMA Internal Medicine | JAMA Network
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Editor's Note
April 2017

Gender Disparities in Sponsorship—How They Perpetuate the Glass Ceiling

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco
  • 2Editor, JAMA Internal Medicine
JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(4):582. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.9411

What do we mean when we talk about the “glass ceiling?” The phrase has been circulating for decades but still refers to the unofficially acknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, particularly affecting women and minorities.

In 2016, as in other professional fields, women continue to be underrepresented in high-profile positions within medicine, particularly faculty positions within academic medicine—only 38% in the United states as of 2014.1 Beyond a waste of intellectual capital, this disparity could lead to potential lack of diversity in the research agenda and future health practices.1 In this issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, Patton and colleagues2 report results from a survey of academic medicine faculty that identifies differences in sponsorship for men and women and suggest this difference as a possible mechanism leading to a “gender achievement gap.”

Patton and colleagues2 distinguish “sponsorship” and “mentorship” and argue that this differentiation is the crux of the gender gap problem. Though the former is generally thought to be a subset of the latter, sponsorship is a higher-stakes effort on the part of the mentor, requiring the mentor to put his or her reputation on the line to obtain high-profile opportunities for their young and rising mentees. Sponsorship is not discussed much in medicine, although it has been described extensively in the business world. Indeed, Ibarra and colleagues3 find that women in business are likely to be overmentored and undersponsored; women are more likely to be given well-meaning advice about understanding themselves rather than guidance to move forward in their careers—in contrast, men are much more likely to be engaged in strategic planning about advancing into new roles.3

This Research Letter by Patton and colleagues2 finds that though mentor sponsorship of their mentees equates to more academic success across all fields, it appears that women are undersponsored compared with men. Furthermore, both male and female mentors sponsor their female mentees less than their male mentees. There still clearly remains much work to do to eliminate sex-based barriers to professional success. This study by Patton et al2 suggests an innovative approach to working toward more sponsorship—and strong mentorship—of women in medicine.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Rita F. Redberg, MD, MSc, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, 505 Parnassus, Ste M1180, San Francisco, CA 94143 (

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Edmunds  LD, Ovseiko  PV, Shepperd  S,  et al.  Why do women choose or reject careers in academic medicine? a narrative review of empirical evidence.  Lancet. 2016;388(10062):2948-2958.PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Patton  EW, Griffith  KA, Jones  RD, Stewart  A, Ubel  PA, Jagsi  R.  Differences in mentor-mentee sponsorship in male vs female recipients of National Institutes of Health grants  [published online February 20, 2017].  JAMA Intern Med. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.9391Google Scholar
Ibarra  H, Carter  NM, Silva  C.  Why men still get more promotions than women.  Harv Bus Rev. 2010;88(9):80-85, 126.PubMedGoogle Scholar