Crunching Numbers to Smash the Glass Ceiling

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A focus on the numbers may be what’s missing from efforts to advance women at corporations, say McKinsey’s Joanna Barsh, Director, New York Office; Sandrine Devillard, Director, Paris Office; and Jin Wang, Principal, Shanghai. Specifically, they should get into the really granular data on gender at every critical career turning-point stage.

In the most recent issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, the three researchers suggest that companies could get more traction out of their women’s initiatives by digging into the data – the same way a competitive company would approach any challenge of strategic importance.

And women leaders are strategically important. Consider, for example, the Credit Suisse study showing that companies with one or more woman on the boardroom performed better than those without women. Or the Catalyst research pointing out that companies with more women board directors meant higher financial performance in terms of return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital. Or the Thomson Reuters study that showed increasing the percentage of women in management led to bigger gains during volatile market conditions.

Considering the information that’s out there, companies should be treating gender diversity and the advancement of women as an issue of competitive importance.

“If greater representation of women in the talent pipeline promises a competitive advantage, successful leaders will work hard to include them. If greater female representation better serves the company’s customers, those leaders will make that happen,” say Barsh, Devillard, and Wang. Here, according to McKinsey, are a few ways to help women break through the glass ceiling by crunching the numbers.

Three Ways Data Can Help Women Advance

According to Barsh, Devillard, and Wang, companies can use data-based systems to help women advance in the workplace.

1. Capture the Real Data

The first step, McKinsey says, is to get an accurate reading of where things stand when it comes to gender representation at every step up the ladder (not just the top few rungs). That way you can ensure you are creating systems that will encourage women to rise up throughout the entire pipeline.

“Discuss the percentage of talented women at each stage of the pipeline, their odds of advancement versus men’s, and the mix of women between line and staff jobs compared with that of their male counterparts. Make sure your entire top team and those who report to its members are accountable for the numbers, and brainstorm about what it will take to improve them.”

Ensuring accurate measurements will help companies develop more effective programs.

2. Build Meaningful Programs

As McKinsey notes, “Of the 235 European companies we surveyed recently, for instance, more than 60 percent told us they have at least 20 gender diversity initiatives in place.” The challenge is not just to create programs, but to create relevant programs that will address the unique needs of an organization – the needs that have been revealed by a smart, through analysis of the numbers.

“Such measures include efforts to make appraisals objective and unbiased; the adoption of diversity targets; greater flexibility in remote working; smoother transitions before, during, and after maternity leave; and executive coaching for high-potential vice presidents,” the researchers explain. They also suggest incentivizing diversity hiring through managers’ bonuses. The programs that work for one company may not work for another, which is why it’s critical to get a careful reading of the facts and a good understanding of the company’s culture.

3. Inspire Future Leaders

Finally, they suggest that once the programs are in place to encourage women up the ladder, igniting women’s ambition should take center stage. McKinsey “found that only 18 percent of entry- and midlevel women have a long-term eye on the C suite, against 36 percent of men.”

Given the relative paucity of female leaders, many mid-level women do not envision themselves that at the top. Barsh, Devillard, and Wang believe that senior leaders can change this. They write, “That finding reinforces our belief that inspirational leaders should intervene with talented female middle managers to discuss their aspirations, build their confidence, embolden them to aim higher, and seek ways to make line roles more palatable for them.”

McKinsey recommends:

“In particular, we would emphasize the need for women’s leadership-development programs to focus on personal mastery of thoughts, feelings, and actions and thus to make women accountable for their own future. In the average Fortune 500 company, a 10 percent boost in the odds that women will advance from manager to director and then to vice president would yield an additional 90 female executives, including five senior vice presidents and one member of the executive committee.”

Here again, the firm advice uses hard numbers to measure the impact of gender champions. “Instill a mind-set of ‘paying it forward,’ so that every woman sponsored will in turn sponsor two or three others,” the researchers suggest.