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The research behind Women Matter: 10 years on

McKinsey Senior Partners Sandra Sancier-Sultan (left) and Sandrine Devillard have led our research into advancing gender parity over the past ten years

A Q&A with Sandrine Devillard

– This October marks the 10th anniversary of McKinsey’s research on gender equality. Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver was the first of a series of reports we titled Women Matter that continues today. Just last week we presented findings from the latest edition at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society event in Paris.

Since 2007, the scope of our research has extended from women in top management to women at all levels and to women in society. Along the way, we have looked at regional and country-level trends, including in Africa, Australia, Canada, the Gulf, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to name a few. We've also just published the 2017 edition of our annual Women in the Workplace survey with LeanIn.Org and later this year we'll release an update to our Diversity Matters research, which looks at the business case for types of diversity beyond gender.

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.

Sandrine Devillard is a McKinsey senior partner who is known as the “mother” of Women Matter. In this interview, she reflects on the journey over the last 10 years.

McKinsey colleagues and CEO members of the CEO Champions initiative at the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society, where we have presented our research on the business case for gender equality since 2007

How did the idea for Women Matter come about in the first place?

Ten years ago, gender parity in the workplace was not exactly a hot topic. Business leaders either did not think there was an issue—and some even thought that they had already solved it.

I was working in Paris at that time, and I was leading what we called our Women’s Initiative. I found myself attending lots of meetings and forums, with amazing women—and brave men who dared to come to those events. There was a community that was interested in the topic, but a notable lack of substance to the debate. Without facts, it seemed to rest on a sense of ethical duty, which never felt right to me.

I remember telling this to Eric Labaye, who led our Paris Office at that time, and his reaction was: “Really? We have to do something about that!” So he, I and our colleague Georges Desvaux, set out to make the business case for gender parity.

When you embarked upon this research for the first time, it was uncharted territory. Did you, or your colleagues, have any reservations that you might not reach the findings you were looking for?

We decided to start by looking at the relationship between the number of women on a company’s executive committee and its organizational health and financial performance. The truth is we didn't know if we would be able to find a correlation.

One person, who will remain nameless, did ask me what we would do if we found that there was a negative correlation between women in top management and corporate performance. I told him we would cross that bridge when we came to it.

Of course, these fears were unfounded. We found a statistically robust correlation, and we now know, beyond doubt, that companies that have more women on their executive committees perform better and have higher financial returns.

What has changed in the landscape of women in the workplace over the last 10 years?

The initial response to Women Matter was overwhelming. We were delighted. But perhaps what has been most surprising over the years is the longevity of the research—it has really stuck. Five or six years on from our first report, I would still walk into meetings with CEOs who would have a copy of it on their desks and want to talk about it.

Our research has evolved, too. From the starting point of that correlation between women in executive roles in companies and business performance we moved on to try to understand the barriers that exist to reaching parity and how organizations can address them.

Within business, I’m most pleased that we’ve recently started to see a shift in mind-sets. It wasn’t until 4 years ago that our survey showed the majority of male middle managers agreed with the statement: “Many studies have demonstrated that companies with more women in leadership positions perform better.”

Outside business, in broader society, it’s become a priority topic, too, which is really encouraging. We know from McKinsey Global Institute’s Power of Parity research that if women participated equally in work with men, there is an opportunity to unlock $28 trillion in economic potential. But achieving this depends upon creating equality for women in society; for example, access to education and addressing their share of unpaid care work.

Do you have personal highlights from this journey?

I’m continually surprised—and delighted—by the level of interest our research receives from clients and from the media. But the team has also been privileged to speak in a number of public forums: from the Korean Parliament to the European Commission to the French House of Representatives to the United Nations.

I think I’m most proud of the way that our research has started to shape not only the way business thinks about women but also society more widely. Countries have passed laws about gender equality. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have a goal dedicated to gender equality and empowering women and girls.

If we’ve helped that in any small way, it’s very gratifying.

What’s next on the horizon for this agenda?

We know from our research that what ultimately drives organizational health and performance is not just women’s representation in companies but also the company’s inclusive culture—the way in which all colleagues are equally accepted, respected, and engaged in the business, regardless of gender or other characteristics. The challenge ahead lies in achieving this, and that requires sustained, multiyear, organization-wide change efforts, changing mind-sets, and transforming performance models—a whole ecosystem.

Everything we know, and everything that has been achieved so far, gives me cause for optimism. But still, women make up less than 25 percent of management positions globally, so there is no doubt that we need to accelerate.

Indeed, the same is true for us here at McKinsey. For many years, we’ve been working to increase the representation of women at every level of our firm. Like other organizations, we’ve made some good progress—particularly at the entry level—but still have work to do. As a female leader of our firm, I’m determined that we’re going to get there.

Read more about inclusion and diversity at McKinsey.

Featured Expert

Sandrine Devillard

Senior Partner, Paris