Changing companies’ minds about women

Abstract1Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Leaders who are serious about getting more women into senior management need a hard-edged approach to overcome the invisible barriers holding them back.

Despite significant corporate commitment to the advancement of women’s careers, progress appears to have stalled. The percentage of women on boards and senior-executive teams remains stuck at around 15 percent in many countries, and just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

The last generation of workplace innovations—policies to support women with young children, networks to help women navigate their careers, formal sponsorship programs to ensure professional development—broke down structural barriers holding women back. The next frontier is toppling invisible barriers: mind-sets widely held by managers, men and women alike, that are rarely acknowledged but block the way.

When senior leaders commit themselves to gender diversity, they really mean it—but in the heat of the moment, deeply entrenched beliefs cause old forms of behavior to resurface. All too often in our experience, executives perceive women as a greater risk for senior positions, fail to give women tough feedback that would help them grow, or hesitate to offer working mothers opportunities that come with more travel and stress. Not surprisingly, a survey we conducted earlier this year indicated that although a majority of women who make it to senior roles have a real desire to lead, few think they have meaningful support to do so, and even fewer think they’re in line to move up.

Our ideas for breaking this cycle are directional, not definitive. They rest on our experience in the trenches with senior executives, on discussions with 30 diversity experts, and on the reflections of leaders we’ve interviewed at companies that have been on this journey for years. These companies include Pitney Bowes, 38 percent of whose vice presidents are women; Shell, where more than a quarter of all supervisors and professional staff worldwide are women; and Time Warner, where more than 40 percent of the senior executives in its operating divisions are women and where the share of women in senior roles has jumped 30 percent in the past six years. Great progress, but even these three companies are the first to admit how much further they have to go.

Their collective experience suggests to us that real progress requires systemwide change driven by a hard-edged approach, including targets ensuring that women are at least considered for advancement, the rigorous application of data in performance dialogues to overcome problematic mind-sets, and genuine sponsorship. Committed senior leaders are of course central to such efforts, which can take many years. We hope our suggestions, and the real-life examples that illustrate them, will stir up your thinking about how to confront the silent but potent beliefs that probably are undermining women in your organization right now.

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We hope you draw inspiration from these examples. If you’re ready to start challenging the broadly held mind-sets holding women back in your organization, first become conscious of your own beliefs and how they affect your behavior and decisions. Then, as you help your company move forward, remain vigilant: every time a senior executive leaves or enters an organization, its culture can—and does—shift. It is up to the senior team to help new executives become active participants in this journey and to make regular efforts to inject the energy that the organization as a whole will need to change its mind about women.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Joanna Barsh is a director in McKinsey’s New York office, and Lareina Yee is a principal in the San Francisco office.

The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution of Heather Sumner to the research behind this article.

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