Meet two partners on a mission to help women of color lead at work

A record number of women have left the US workforce during the COVID-19 crisis. Of those, Black and Latina women have faced disproportionate challenges, with unemployment rates climbing to nearly 9 percent for both groups.

Our research has shown that there is a correlation between profitability and companies that build inclusive cultures of diverse talent. To do so effectively, leaders must be role models of change who go beyond words and implement change.

Gayatri Shenai, Partner, and Sara Prince, Partner
Gayatri Shenai, Partner, and Sara Prince, Partner
Gayatri Shenai, Partner, and Sara Prince, Partner

Two of our colleagues, partners Gayatri Shenai and Sara Prince, have served as moderators at the Minority Women Lead conference, which is dedicated to helping women of color advance in the workplace. They talked to us about how they’re helping support minority women colleagues as well as clients.

How has the pandemic shaped your focus on women in the workplace—and particularly women of color?

Sara: Honestly, my priorities haven’t changed. The twin pandemic issue of the global health crisis and racial inequity only bring into sharp focus the very real issues women, women of color, and even more specifically Black women, face.

Gayatri: For me, COVID has been an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements—for example, those in STEM—and to thank them for all they do every day. I prioritize my day around people—which means having conversations with my clients, my teams, my colleagues, and people in my community. We talk about personal and professional development goals. I offer whatever advice I can.

As a consultant so accustomed to solving problems, one tough lesson I’ve learned is that not all problems necessarily need a solution. Sometimes as a leader, your people need you to just be there to listen, even if it’s for 10 minutes.

What’s most top-of-mind for your women minority clients and colleagues right now?

Gayatri: As more companies talk about the return to the office, there’s growing concern that the inequities women of color have faced will be even more exacerbated. Even before the pandemic, women of color were promoted more slowly than other groups of employees and were less likely to say their manager advocated for new opportunities for them. In this moment, connectivity is what everyone’s talking about.

Sara: Building off the return-to-office topic, leaders are having to make tough choices about the spectrum of flexibility they will allow while teammates and employees are making tough choices about what working dynamics they will accept. In that, the focus on support for a diverse profile of leaders can get lost. There is a bit of tension as to whether all the work for racial justice and equity will fade to the backdrop in this moment.

How is McKinsey helping organizations respond to these challenges?

Gayatri: As a firm, we have been raising this issue, creating awareness and getting organizations to act through our research, publications and work with clients. We’ve also developed programs specifically focused on elevating executives of color to reach their professional aspirations. One such example is our Black Leadership Academy.

Sara: What’s particularly impactful about our Black Leadership Academy, which is one of our 10 actions to advance racial justice and equity, is that it’s an opportunity to spend time with leaders of participating organizations and help them think about how they reshape their talent pipelines to be more inclusive. In addition to this, our Institute for Black Economic Mobility is helping equip communities and organizations with the facts and insights they need to take action.

What we lose when we lose women in the workforce

What we lose when we lose women in the workforce

A record number of women have left the US workforce during the COVID-19 crisis. A policy expert and former HR executive discuss the long-term effects—and their own experiences.

We know women of color are more often under-mentored and under-sponsored than their White counterparts. How are you both working to change that at McKinsey?

Gayatri: Anytime I have a new opportunity—like a speaking engagement, for instance—I offer it to a minority woman before anyone else. I’ve also formed a habit of checking in on them regularly to see how they are feeling, what’s going on for them, and how I can be helpful.

In the last year, I’ve found myself starting emails with an acknowledgement of thanks—letting these women know I appreciate them and their work. This could be following a difficult analysis they drove, a client meeting they led, a conference they moderated. The feedback I have received is that it helps them feel seen and appreciated and makes a difference in morale.

Sara: I’ve been doing 15-minute zoom hangouts with folks on my team. They are optional, but it clears time to be connected in a way that’s not necessarily about a specific workstream or deliverable. I have also been looking for those quiet voices and asking them for time to check in.

Separately, I’ve been involved in putting together a series of events as part of our Black Leadership Academy that brings our current and former women participants together for discussions. It’s intended to help foster a community for these women to network, and we’re now extending it to our Asian, Hispanic, and Latino Leadership Academies as well.

I just try to be a listening ear where they can put down whatever mask they are holding up for a few minutes. We all need that space of relief so we can keep doing the hard work of forging new paths.

Sara Prince, Partner

Do you have the opportunity to do similar things with your clients? How so?

Gayatri: In the world of the pandemic, virtual happy hours with a glass of wine have been my go-to, but I also have clients who WhatsApp, text, FaceTime, and just call me. We share laughs and also frustrations over what feels toughest right now, and I’m just happy to be a listening ear and friendly face for them to vent to.

Sara: I make a conscious choice to spend time with clients of diverse profiles to really understand their aspirations and how they want to shape their organizations beyond a particular engagement. I use that insight to offer perspective on how they can get there including flagging to their leaders how they can be helpful to that persons’ journey.

Many times though, I just try to listen and create a space where they can put down whatever mask they are holding up for a few minutes. We all need that space of relief so we can keep doing the hard work of forging new paths.

Finally, in your view, where can organizations make the greatest progress on diversity and inclusion right now?

Gayatri: If we all wait for organizations to get it right, we will fail. Ultimately, an organization is a collection of people. Leaders and managers need to role model and get in front of this issue. If they can find ways to let women on their teams know they matter and are supported and appreciated, that’s when we’ll see real change.

Sara: The biggest change over the last year and a half is people’s willingness to discuss the issues and try to take more action to address them. What’s important now is that we don’t lose the focus, commitment, and accountability that the past year has brought us.

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