The women behind Women in the Workplace

“If you’re going to do this, think really, really big.” That’s what a mentor told Lareina Yee and Alexis Krivkovich in 2014 when they shared a budding idea: to apply McKinsey’s business problem-solving approach to help address gender inequality at work.

Today, Alexis is a senior and managing partner for our San Francisco office. Lareina, a senior partner who leads our firm’s High-Tech Infrastructure and Services Practice, is also McKinsey’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. And that idea from 2014? It has blossomed into Women in the Workplace, the largest study of the experience of women and gender inequality in corporate America.

Working in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg and, McKinsey analyzes workplace data and the experiences of men and women to help organizations chart concrete actions and take steps forward. At the launch of the report each year, the Wall Street Journal runs a special section, Women In, and hosts a conference to further explore the challenges in the workplace.

This year marks five years of Women in the Workplace. We spoke with Lareina and Alexis who co-lead the effort along with West Coast partners Irina Starikova and Jess Huang to hear more about how it all began, the surprises they’ve met along the way, the progress made so far, and what’s next.

McKinsey has been researching gender parity for over 10 years. How did Women in the Workplace take off?

Lareina: I didn’t know it would turn into what it is today when it first launched. It was largely born out of our own personal experiences. I had often found myself doubling the population of women in a conference room whenever I entered. I thought to myself, McKinsey solves some of the world’s toughest business problems through analytics. Why can’t we do the same here, learn something, and help companies work towards gender diversity?

I wanted to team up with someone, and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book had just come out. It resonated with a lot of people (plus she’s a McKinsey alum) so I worked with Eric Kutcher, a McKinsey senior partner who became a sponsor of the research, to set up a formal partnership with since they work individually with women.

Alexis: Eric was really committed to getting this off the ground. I remember speaking to him about it while I was on maternity leave after having my third daughter. I thought to myself this was an opportunity to help pave the way for my girls one day. Once I returned back to work a few months later, I got started.

The women behind Women in the Workplace
Kevin Sneader, McKinsey global managing partner, and Lareina Yee
The women behind Women in the Workplace

Since those early days, how has the report been received?

Irina: Inside McKinsey, there’s been a growing understanding of how powerful this research is, and many colleagues are proactively bringing it to their clients.

In the earliest days, this work was really driven by Lareina and Alexis. Now, it has become a firm-wide initiative that draws colleagues from all over McKinsey. Jess and I are evidence of that. Jess joined the team last year, and I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it three years ago. We each do this work in addition to our regular client work, and I think we’d all agree it’s very much a labor of love.

Alexis: Outside the firm, there’s definitely been a shift in the quality and sincerity of companies’ engagement on the topic of gender parity. Five years ago, it wasn’t necessarily a standalone priority. If you caught someone in HR or diversity and inclusion, you might get interest in participating.

Today, we’re getting outreach from executive leadership teams, and participating companies continually tell us how valuable the insights are. Over the years, we’ve heard more companies tell us that the research outputs have been critical launching points for them, helping to prioritize where to focus.

It’s no longer about optics but rather performance and winning the talent game. Companies want to ensure they’re engaging their best future leaders, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other forms of diversity. The numbers say a lot. In five years, we’ve almost tripled the amount of participating companies we get from 118 to 329 this year.

McKinsey solves some of the world’s toughest business problems through analytics. Why can’t we do the same here, learn something, and help companies work towards gender diversity?

Lareina YeeChief diversity and inclusion officer, McKinsey

What have you found most surprising from the study?

Lareina: I always hoped our research would resonate with women and men, but I didn’t know the extent that it would. I remember being at a client office six months after the first report had been published and seeing it out in a woman’s cubicle. She told me she kept it there to remind herself of the context of the world in which she works and the progress she’s striving towards creating.

Irina: I’d add that it is incredible to see how much this research has become known across such a wide range of companies. There is not a single industry, geography, or company size not covered in the registrations we continually receive on the website.

What I did not anticipate was the growing number of industry organizations using our data and insights to drive dialogues with companies in their respective industries. This includes organizations, such as Women’s Foodservice Forum, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, and Press Forward, to name a few.

How has the landscape changed for women in the past five years?

Jess: Each year's report tells an important story, but what’s particularly unique about this year is that we could do a comprehensive look back over a longer term.

The good news is we are seeing bright spots this year, both in women's representation at the top and in certain elements of women's experiences. There’s finally some movement in the C-suite with a 24 percent increase at this level.

But some areas haven’t budged at all. We lose a lot of women very early on in their career at the very first rung of the corporate ladder, and we see many of them getting stuck along the way, particularly women of color. While the playing field is less tilted, we don’t have equity yet. Companies have more to do and need to work faster.

Alexis: What is encouraging, though, is companies’ commitments towards gender diversity. For nearly 90 percent of them, it’s now a top priority, and there’s been a 50 percent increase in commitment to it over the last seven years.

Since we started, 600 companies have participated in the study, and more than a quarter of a million people have been surveyed. What we know is that data and language from the report provide colleagues with a fact base of what’s going on. And once you’re armed with that, it’s that much easier to make changes happen.

You’ve come this far in five years. What will Women in the Workplace look like after its first decade?

Lareina: I’d hope the report will be the definitive guide for companies to make progress, particularly at that first step up, and be a source of insights. I’d like to see in the next five years companies applying the same measures that have been successful at the C-suite to the first-manager promotions. On a personal level, Alexis is a mom of three girls and I am a mom of three boys. We expect them to enter a workforce where equality is the norm, not the exception.