Putting productivity over presence

Automatable activities represent $15 trillion of addressable work force globally and seem to be on everyone’s agenda. Advancing women in just the Asia Pacific region could add $4.5 trillion to the region’s annual GDP by 2025—how do we get that on the agenda, too?

That’s a question I think about often. I’m part of McKinsey’s Knowledge Network, one of thousands of people who specialize in focused areas of expertise. It’s a different role from traditional consulting — typically with less travel involved, but nevertheless offering a huge array of opportunities to work with partners and clients around the globe. It’s been thrilling to be able to contribute innovations in areas that range from lean management to intelligent process automation, and from analytics to reskilling.

But I’ve also become been very aware that for much of my professional life, I haven’t exactly been surrounded by women. Instead, it’s usually been the familiar pyramid: more women at the junior level, fewer further up. I’d love to work with more female colleagues.

We know the barriers women face. Last year’s report, The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific, notes insufficient flexibility at work, too little attention paid to work-life balance, and nonexistent or inaccessible childcare as major barriers to increasing the number of women in top management (exhibit). Following the direction to “focus 100 percent on your work” sounds impossible when you know you have important roles both at work and at home.

Women across Asia report that a focus on "presence over productivity" impedes gender diversity in top management.

Beyond its intrinsic fairness, promoting women is also an enormous economic opportunity. The $4.5 trillion figure estimated just for Asia should be getting at least as much attention as the projected financial impact from automation and connectivity technologies.

Moreover, could the technology advances break down some of the barriers women face? Could they lead to a world that reaps the rewards of focusing on productivity rather than on presence?

For example, many women in rural India spend a lot of time and energy just in getting to a bank. Banks are typically in bigger towns and cities, transportation can be unreliable, and safety is an issue. Once a woman can bank through a simple phone app, she gets a huge time refund. She’s freer to pursue a wider variety of other goals.

It’s not just an issue in India. GSMA estimates that 1.2 billion women in low- and middle-income countries are unconnected. As a result, they spent hours on tasks that can now be done electronically in seconds.

Improving women’s access to automation and connectivity technologies could change the game, playing a big role in bridging the gap between current numbers and genuine parity. When women can do both personal and professional tasks digitally, they get more flexible work hours and can combine work and family commitments with greater ease.

Of course, women aren’t the only people who can gain from automation and connectivity technologies. Men who want more involvement in their families’ lives can benefit, too. In fact, selecting and equipping male champions to lead cultural change within organizations can be an effective way to address the attitudes underlying the bias against greater flexibility.

That means companies should offer more part-time jobs that employees can accept without impacting their seniority. Professionals need opportunities to work from home and flexible working hours to manage their personal lives. When everyone has the environment we need to do great work, we will truly be putting performance ahead of presence, and making the workforce a true meritocracy.

This past autumn, I got involved with Asia Women of Steel (AWoS). Led by senior partners Karel Eloot and Joseph Tesvic, AWoS is one result of the steps McKinsey has taken toward designing programs for women. Our most recent event was last week: 40 women coming together in the Knowledge Network to think about how to strengthen our numbers.

In joining, I wanted to look at my own challenges through a new lens and explore ways that I could help more women move into senior roles.

We are already seeing change. More than half the people on my team are female, and I notice much more openness to making flexibility a priority in developing talent. We are pursuing diversity and inclusion as a firm, and that’s expanding opportunities for women within McKinsey and for the firm in the greater world.

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