“It’s a Little Different for Men”—Sponsorship and Gender in Academic Medicine: a Qualitative Study



Women remain underrepresented in top leadership positions in academic medicine. In business settings, a person with power and influence actively supporting the career advancement of a junior person is referred to as a sponsor and sponsorship programs have been used to diversify leadership. Little is known about how sponsorship functions in academic medicine.


To explore perceptions of sponsorship and its relationship to gender and career advancement in academic medicine.


Qualitative study using semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with sponsors and protégés.


Twelve sponsors (clinical department chairs) and 11 protégés (participants of a school of medicine executive leadership program [N = 23]) at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Key Results

All sponsors were men and all were professors, six of the 11 protégés were women, and four of the 23 participants were underrepresented minorities in medicine. We identified three themes: (1) people (how and who): women seek out and receive sponsorship differently; (2) process (faster and further): sponsorship provides an extra boost, especially for women; and (3) politics and culture (playing favorites and paying it forward): sponsorship and fairness. Informants acknowledge that sponsorship provides an extra boost for career advancement especially for women. Sponsors and protégés differ in their perceptions of how sponsorship happens. Informants describe gender differences in how sponsorship is experienced and specifically noted that women were less likely to actively seek out sponsorship and be identified as protégés compared to men. Informants describe a tension between sponsorship and core academic values such as transparency, fairness, and merit.


Sponsorship is perceived to be critical to high-level advancement and is experienced differently by women. Increased understanding of how sponsorship works in academic medicine may empower individual faculty to utilize this professional relationship for career advancement and provide institutions with a strategy to diversify top leadership positions.

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Author information




RBL: study conception and design, literature search, development of data collection tool, data collection, analysis and interpretation, manuscript writing

MSA: literature search, development of data collection tool, data collection, analysis and interpretation, manuscript writing

KS: literature search, development of data collection tool, data analysis and interpretation, manuscript writing

JB: development of data collection tool, data analysis and interpretation, manuscript writing

MGF: development of data collection tool, data analysis and interpretation, manuscript writing

LI: development of data collection tool, data analysis and interpretation, manuscript writing

BF: development of data collection tool, data analysis and interpretation, manuscript writing

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rachel B. Levine MD, MPH.

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This study has approval from a Johns Hopkins Medicine Institutional Review Board.

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Levine, R.B., Ayyala, M.S., Skarupski, K.A. et al. “It’s a Little Different for Men”—Sponsorship and Gender in Academic Medicine: a Qualitative Study. J GEN INTERN MED (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-020-05956-2

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  • academic medicine
  • sponsorship
  • leadership
  • gender disparities