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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.
Corresponding Author: Rita F. Redberg, MD, MSc, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, 505 Parnassus, Ste M1180, San Francisco, CA 94143 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Shakil S, Redberg RF. Gender Disparities in Sponsorship—How They Perpetuate the Glass Ceiling. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(4):582. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.9411
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