Sandrine Devillard, director, McKinsey France

Based in Paris, Sandrine Devillard is a senior partner with McKinsey and focuses on the European consumer sector. She is an international board member for the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society and is global leader of the McKinsey Women Initiative.

At McKinsey we have been researching this topic for the past ten years. There is still underrepresentation of women on corporate boards, but the underrepresentation is even more striking on executive committees. Since we started researching this, the progress towards gender equality has only been 0.5-1% per year in executive committees and change is not happening by itself. Barriers to progress include society and the corporate mindset of profit and what success looks like, despite the fact that there is a clear correlation between gender diversity and company performance. More gender diverse companies − those that were able to attract and develop the best diverse talent − perform better.

Women into leadership

A key issue is that of women progressing into leadership, as that is a clear indicator of change. But our 2013 Women Matter survey of 1,400 managers and top executives from around the world showed that 40% of women felt their leadership styles were not ‘fit for the top’. When asked if women’s leadership and communication styles were compatible with the prevailing model for an effective senior leader in the company, only 58% of the women agreed versus 70% of the men. This confirms that many women think the way they work and lead may not be recognised as efficient in the dominant model.

This survey also showed that while most men and women agree women can lead as effectively as men, the men had reservations when asked if they were ‘strongly convinced’: 84% of women strongly agreed they could lead as effectively as men at senior management levels, but only 43% of the men felt the same.

When we conducted interviews, we found out that women bring something different to the party. Academics analysed different leadership styles between men and women, and found that women differ in respect of participative decision-making, expectations and rewards, and commitment to mentorship and sponsorship. They also differ in communication and working styles. We found that behaviours more frequently used by women have a positive impact on organisational performance. For example, women tend to care about developing people; they set expectations and give rewards more often, and are seen as role models. These leadership styles more frequently used by women are critical to strengthen the work environment, reinforce values, instil accountability and drive results – all of which inspire people and organisations to perform better.

Changing prevailing corporate leadership models is critical, not only to give women the confidence to take on leadership roles and believe they can succeed, but also because this change would boost companies’ performance.

The right environment

We found that women have the same level of ambition as men, but the level of confidence women have that they will reach top management positions is 20% lower than men in the same position. The reasons behind that are not totally linked to self-confidence, but are much more linked to how conducive to diversity they feel their environment is.

We found out that 40% believe, given equal qualifications, it is not more complicated for women to reach the top. That’s important, because of the men within that group of interviewees, 77% were convinced that taking too much action in regard to gender diversity was unfair. In systems where the dominating leadership style was that of men, the higher the proportion of men who were unaware of the issues was.

By the way, there was no difference in attitudes revealed across different geographies. Companies in the UK and US have taken action earlier, but progress is slow everywhere.

For those interested in furthering gender equality, it’s not a question of how many measures you have, but whether you consider them a true change programme. As you implement a comprehensive action plan, do you have indicators in place to monitor the programme, is this a priority and is there true commitment from the top management? In our survey, the companies that managed to progress had made it a priority in good times and bad. They had committed top management and a committed executive team, and they were walking the talk and monitoring the progress of gender diversity. They were sharing the inspiring story of the change, and building a strong case for change by showing what gender diversity brings to your company. The differences come not between sectors or companies, but from the question of whether or not you are treating this as a true transformation programme.

The effectiveness of gender diversity programmes was frequently raised in our research, and only 40% of our respondents reported they were ‘well implemented’ in their companies – ie, they had clear follow-up processes in place, were assessed on a regular basis, and their effectiveness was evaluated at various levels of the organisation.

There are actions that senior women in companies can take:

    • Cultivate ecosystems of thought.
    • Ensure the true commitment of the executive committee.
    • Grow women as leaders using combinations of networking, sponsorship and mentoring.
    • Revise the organisation − looking at all practices, from recruitment to progression − searching for bias.
    • Build the infrastructure around flexibility, and implement that around the whole company ecosystem.
  • Don’t confuse different leadership style with a lack of leadership.