McKinsey research shows why McKinsey’s next leader should be a woman

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“I have to tell you, I didn’t expect to be standing here for another reason as well,” she continued. “It is very rare to find a six-foot-tall, American-African, American-sounding, British female head”—and here she pauses for a darkly comic effect—“…of anything, much less McKinsey.”

In a recently released study co-produced with LeanIn.org, McKinsey found that women remain severely underrepresented in the upper echelons of management. The data from 222 companies representing 12 million employees showed that only one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and fewer than one in 30 is a woman of color.

Some other key findings from McKinsey research over the years:

  • “Indeed, some leadership behaviors, observed more frequently among women than among men, have a positive impact on a company’s organizational performance. In this way, women complement and enhance the range of leadership behaviors that are critical to corporate performance.” —From McKinsey’s Women Matter 2 (2008)
  • “Leadership behaviors more frequently adopted by women leaders are critical to navigate through the crisis and beyond.” —From McKinsey’s Women Matter 3 (2009)
  • “The introduction of a gender-diversity policy is often like a cultural revolution and requires full and visible commitment of the CEO to drive the changes. Building a truly gender-diverse company, which supports the development and the promotion of women at the highest levels, can only succeed with the support of top management. Positive practices stand little chance of developing fully if senior management does not commit to changing the culture of the organization under the sponsorship of the CEO.” —From McKinsey’s Women Matter 2010 (2010)

All three of the reports referenced above are sequels to the firm’s landmark 2007 report, Women Matter, which helped to kick off a decade of reasoning about the enhanced performance of diverse teams, and a reckoning over the corporate world’s slow progress in attaining it. And McKinsey’s voice on this issue has remained an influential one. In a piece posted to its site this month, the firm acknowledges that “collectively, this body of work remains some of McKinsey’s most popular research, filling three of the five top spots on the list of our most cited reports last year.”

In his letter introducing the 2017 edition of the Women Matter report (subtitle: “Time to Accelerate”), Barton notes:

We know that moving the needle on this issue is not easy—and that despite the commitment of many organizations, progress has been slow. In this report, we highlight the many barrier to women’s advancement that will have to be addressed to achieve more gender-equal businesses and societies. We do so with a dose of humility, as we are on our own journey toward increasing representation of women at McKinsey, and have more work to do ourselves to achieve our own goals of a gender balanced workforce.

Diverse groups of leaders, as Hunt emphasized in the speech she delivered in Sweden, have been found to make better decisions because they almost inevitably have more viewpoints feeding into internal decisions. They are also more attuned to the desires and needs of diverse customers and have access to a wider talent pool. And, importantly, “high-performing colleagues, your top 20% of employees in an organization, score working in a modern, tolerant, progressive organization very highly,” Hunt said. “So even if you don’t value progressive policies around diversity … your highest-performing employees, particularly millennials, value that”—even when the policies don’t apply directly to them, she noted.

So now the world’s most celebrated management experts have the opportunity to not only promote one of their stars but also model the very best practices of high-performing teams and work against a trend of gross inequity. The question is, will they take it?