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Mentors, Sponsors, Role Models and BFAWs- Women Need All Four

Center for Women
September 11, 2018

"If you and your friend(s) are in the same field and you can collaborate or help each other, do this, without shame. It’s not your fault your friends are awesome. Men invented nepotism and practically live by it. It’s okay for women to do it too." –Roxane Gay

Women – what are we, to each other, in the workplace? Enough of the messaging that we need to compete against other women for promotions or the favor of supervisors, or even who has a better outfit. My sincere hope is that we lift each other up, provide each other with motivation and information to succeed, and shine a spotlight on the accomplishments of our women colleagues.

In 2013, journalists and podcasters Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow coined the phrase Shine Theory, the notion that “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” The phrase has gone ultra-viral (and sadly, often uncredited) but the message is consistent: female jealousy, envy and at its worst, sabotage, has no place in business – or in our case, higher education and student affairs. Instead, we need people around us to help us shine, and we need to be that person to others.

Women need to be intentional about forming relationships and building our networks. Over the years, colleagues like the wonderful Teri Fegley and Teri Bump (there’s something about Teris, I guess!) and my late mother-in-law Carol have provided guidance to countless women on this topic, and I am in debt to them for my own evolution in developing and nurturing female work relationships.   

Here are my own definitions, not formally defined or published anywhere except this blog, but framed by the women in my life:

Mentors: women who support, guide and advise you, share your joys and challenges both personally and professionally, and engage with you in a multi-year relationship that starts out mostly one-way but evolves into a mutually beneficial caring relationship. In my experience this is not usually a planned or matched relationship, but one that emerges naturally and is sustained through chemistry and commitment. Over time, most mentoring relationships I’ve been part of have morphed into friendships. I’m at the stage now where mentees who have done amazing things in higher education are now the women I’m turning to for professional advice, which is awesome. (Shout-out to Jessica Cabrera from Bronx Community College!)

Sponsors: women who provide you with opportunities, give you honest feedback including the tough stuff, advocate for you, and expect you to work hard and reflect positively on them as a result.  Sponsors are generally part of your professional world; a supervisor or senior-level colleague who can open doors for you. My sponsors have been integral to my career progression, but they generally haven’t gotten to know me on a personal level – and that’s fine, because that’s not what I needed from them. My mentors have made me the person I am, but my sponsors have gotten me to the position I’m in.

Role models: women you may or may not know well, but who demonstrate talents you want to develop or habits you want to emulate. I have several role models who:

  • Have influenced the way I choose to present myself as far as attire and personal style (I’m looking at you, Lori White and Michelle VanEss-Grant!)

  • Astound me with their tireless advocacy for other women

  • Have shown me how to handle adversity with resilience and grace

  • Are political geniuses in advancing the success of their students or matching potential donors with needed projects.

  • Are extremely generous with their own time and money, and help me frame my own philanthropic choices

It’s okay to admire from afar! Someone is holding YOU up as a role model right now, and you don’t even know it.

BFAWs:  The Gallup organization, in over thirty years of research on employee engagement, has found that one of the strongest predictors of an engaged person is having a “best friend at work.” While this concept has garnered some criticism and mocking, there is no doubt that a friend at work helps the day go by more quickly. Whether it’s a five-minute drop-in to check in about your latest pop culture obsession or a scheduled weekly coffee break or lunch, a BFAW provides much-needed female companionship that doesn’t require you to be “on.” You don’t need your BFAW to help you succeed professionally; you need her to help you get through the day, preferably with a smile on your face. If a BFAW becomes a BFF, so much the better.

I have benefited tremendously from the women in my life and my goal now is to repay that many times over by serving in these roles for others. I’m working on it.

Who are your mentors, sponsors, role models or BFAWs? Let’s shout them out using the #WISA_KC hashtag and give them the credit they deserve.




(Forget a Mentor) Find A Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career, S. Hewlett, 2013, Harvard Business School Publishing, Cambridge MA.

Kathy is the Vice President for Student Affairs at Alfred University in western NY and the past Regional Director for NASPA Region II.  She is an avid outdoor sports participant, loves reading and discussing books, and is inspired every day by the creative and diverse community in Alfred. You can find her on Twitter at @kathywoughter, LinkedIn: kathywoughter and Instagram: kwough.