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McKinsey Q&A: Alia

– When McKinsey alumna Sheryl Sandberg wowed the audience at last year’s global partners’ meeting, the ripple effect traveled far beyond that audience and led to a partnership between Sheryl’s Lean In Foundation and our firm.

“Improving the way we recruit and support women is a top strategic priority for the McKinsey,” says Western Region (U.S.) managing director Eric. “We are very excited about our partnership with Lean In because it combines their ideas with our analytical rigor, which will paint a clear picture of where the corporate world currently stands on gender equality, and how companies can improve it.”


Our main contributions include driving a global benchmarking survey on corporate gender equality and seconding an associate to Lean In. The associate currently in this role is San Francisco-based Alia.

Interviewer: Where did you develop your interest in gender equality?

Alia: When I was 19, I went on a tsunami relief trip and met an eleven-year-old girl who had a child due to rape. I started Emerge Global to help this girl and others develop the business and life skills they need to be self-sufficient.

Along the way, I was shocked by the challenges I encountered. I felt like I had to have twice as many facts and be twice as buttoned up to receive a fraction of the funding my male peers were raising. I dealt with sexual harassment from business partners and donors. I watched as press about my organization began with how I looked and what I was wearing.

When the opportunity to second with Lean In came along, I was ecstatic. It’s definitely different from Sri Lanka, but it’s still about helping women get into leadership roles and places where they can affect change.

Interviewer: What’s it like working at Lean In?

Alia: Lean In is like a start-up. Our nine team members support more than 21,000 Lean In Circles in almost 10 countries so we’re a lean, scrappy team. I run our metrics and analytics. I measure the impact of our initiatives across channels including social media and Circles. I am also in charge of education, including content curation. I work with experts around the world to create discussion guides for our communities.

Interviewer: What are the latest developments in the Lean In effort?

Alia: On March 5, we launched #LeanInTogether, a public awareness campaign focused on men and their important role in reaching gender equality. The campaign emphasizes how men benefit from supporting women at home and at work – happier marriages, more successful children, and better team outcomes—and provides practical information on how men can do their part. It&rsqup;s exciting because it is the first time we have ever talked publicly about men. We want to celebrate men who have supported us in getting to where we are today, and we are partnering with the National Basketball Association and ESPN. We are also excited to share resources like these tips for men on supporting women at home and work.

Interviewer: What has surprised you most about gender equality in the corporate world?

Alia: It has been amazing to me how much bias we all – even women – have. We are ingrained to associate certain things with men and others with women. Joan Williams, one of the experts we work with to develop discussion guides, recently conducted a study that shows that if you give an interviewer two identical resumes, except that one mentions membership in the Parent Teacher Association, the mother is 79% less likely to be hired and offered ~$11,000 less in salary. It shows how much maternal bias can affect women.

It has also inspired me to see how much Sheryl’s message resonates with people – like women who are trying to figure out what to do next at different points in their careers, or whether to have a tough conversation at work. Hearing them say, ‘I’m going to take the job or ask for the raise or have that conversation’ is pretty exciting.

Interviewer: How can McKinsey make a difference in this effort?

Alia: Beyond funding my secondment, of course, McKinsey is doing a pro bono engagement for Lean In: we worked together to create and launch a ‘Women in the Workplace’ survey. It identifies biases in the workplace so that people can understand what programs or policies will be most effective. We aspire to have enough data from enough companies so that an organization can compare its data against peers in its sector. This year’s results will be released with The Wall Street Journal in the fall and we plan to repeat the benchmarking exercise annually.

Interviewer: What has your experience been like as a woman at McKinsey?

Alia: McKinsey does a great job of having the right conversations and creating support systems for women. The firm is leading the way in tackling these issues and has been hugely supportive of Lean In and of me. McKinsey provides a ton of flexibility to accommodate different situations and we always actively seeking ways to continue to improve.