Women in the workplace: Breaking up to break through

| Podcast

‘Women leaders are voting with their feet,’ says McKinsey senior partner Alexis Krivkovich in this week’s episode of The McKinsey Podcast. She and senior partner Lareina Yee speak with global editorial director Lucia Rahilly about the latest Women in the Workplace research and what it reveals about the “great breakup”: why it’s happening, what employers can do about it—and what’s at stake if they don’t.

After, everyone’s talking about generative AI—but what is it, really? Find out in this excerpt from our McKinsey Explainer series.

When it’s not worth it to stick with it

Lucia Rahilly: As part of our most recent Women in the Workplace research, McKinsey conducted a wide range of interviews with women across corporate America. One of those interviews was on this topic of the great breakup: women leaving their jobs for more fulfilling work in unprecedented numbers. The woman sharing this particular story self-identified as a senior manager in her organization and as a South Asian immigrant to the US. Here’s what she told us.

Senior manager: I’ve asked many times what I can do to get promoted, and I don’t get a good answer. I’m thinking of leaving, and it will be my company’s loss, since they didn’t offer me the opportunity to advance. I hit a ceiling that did not need to be there.

Lucia Rahilly: Let’s unpack that. Lareina, what does the research tell us about what impedes women most in our efforts to advance?

Lareina Yee: That story tells us that loyalty has its limits, and women like this senior manager are fed up. That’s the genesis of the great breakup this year. Even in this economic climate, they are finding there are better opportunities. She’s saying, “I want to succeed. I want to be here. I am working really hard, and I am driving results. Yet every day, I receive signals that I can’t break that ceiling. So maybe I should take the risk and go somewhere else.”

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There’s a lot of data behind some of the things that may be holding her back on a day-to-day basis. We found that 37 percent of women leaders had a coworker take credit for their idea, and that they were two times more likely to be mistaken for someone junior.

That’s just the beginning of a very long list of things that are happening, according to our research. And then you listen to the senior manager’s story, and you can understand why she said, “Maybe it’s time for me to bet on myself.”

It’s not only about burnout

Lucia Rahilly: We’ve talked in previous years about women being likelier than their male colleagues to invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.1The state of diversity in global private markets: 2022,” McKinsey, November 1, 2022. Is this investment recognized in any meaningful way—for example, in performance evaluations?

Alexis Krivkovich: The short answer is no. The vast majority of companies now have diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their overall corporate goals. Most of them have moved on a set of initiatives to respond to that. But disproportionately, we see women leaders stepping in to carry that weight and move those initiatives forward.

In fact, women leaders do twice the DE&I work as their male peers. Yet only about a quarter of companies formally recognize it in their performance reviews. When we talk to women leaders, they say, “This is a passion project. This is a priority. This is a necessity, because I see all these diverse younger talents looking up at me, waiting for me to use my position and my opportunity to change the game for them.”

And so they’re not willing to let it go and yet they recognize that this isn’t helping them advance their careers. And while their companies ask them again and again to step in, they don’t reward them for that extra effort.

Lucia Rahilly: We’ve seen in the past that these kind of, as you called them, passion projects tend to take the form of people-focused investment. But these efforts can actually contribute to our own burnout. Are we seeing that phenomenon continue?

Lareina Yee: We still see burnout. Forty-three percent of women in corporate America said they were burned out. We know that women leaders, like the story you shared, are two times more likely to be spending time on DE&I. And only 40 percent of them feel formally recognized in their organization for that. The burnout is not the sole driver of the great breakup. The reason we see the breakup is because something different is happening.

As we are back to work in a more pre-COVID-19 setting, as we’ve come back, what we see is that women have very high ambitions, as they always have, and they are not seeing the ability to fulfill those ambitions in the places where they work. That is not because they’re burned out. It is because they’re looking for a place that’s going to be reciprocal in its relationship with them.

Even if a company feels they may be promoting a couple of women, the net picture is that women aren’t feeling this is the environment for them to thrive.

Lareina Yee

To put in a scale of perspective, for every one manager or director who was promoted this year, two decided to leave. So even if a company feels they may be promoting a couple of women, the net picture is that women aren’t feeling this is the environment for them to thrive.

Lucia Rahilly: Are you saying that women leaders are shopping around for better jobs and better environments, rather than exiting the workplace altogether? Or is it a mix?

Alexis Krivkovich: What we see and what we hear from women is they want a return on the investment for their loyalty and for their effort. We’ve long talked about the double shift that we see women holding, which is disproportionate household responsibilities, irrespective of their earning level, irrespective of how senior they rise in their organization.

As men tend to shed those responsibilities, women persistently carry them forward. And during COVID-19, that double shift exploded into the double–double for many women. But what Lareina’s describing is a triple shift, which is a rising and different expectation for women leaders in the workplace.

Call it emotional labor, call it good leadership: they do far more of the sponsorship than their male peers. They disproportionately hold the diversity and inclusion responsibilities. They check in with employees more on wellness, on workload, on balance. And so they’re showing up the way that companies say they want. But they don’t get rewarded formally for it, and so many of them are looking around and saying, “There’s got to be a better deal.”

What women are looking for

Lucia Rahilly: What did the research tell us about what women are actively looking for in terms of workplace culture?

Lareina Yee: They are looking for the ability to advance. They are looking for flexibility in choice in terms of where, when, and how they work. They are looking for companies that authentically prioritize DE&I. They are looking for people who are backing their careers.

And they’re looking for feedback, be that constructive things they need to work on or positive reinforcement of things that they’re working on. These don’t seem very complicated. And what’s really interesting is that senior women want these things.

This year, when we looked at young women, women under 30, women in their early 20s, what they said is, “We want all of these things too but at a higher intensity. We absolutely care. We absolutely want to be in organizations that are prioritizing DE&I. We absolutely want flexibility.”

At the same time, they know they need to deliver performance results. But what’s interesting is that for young women, we found that two-thirds of them want to be leaders. And they’re willing to expect those types of things in their organizations. Quite frankly, as Alexis said, companies haven’t stepped up, particularly this last year.

Lucia Rahilly: Let’s go a little deeper into one of the features you mentioned: flexibility and the ability to work remotely. I’ll share a little bit from one of the women you interviewed. She identifies as a hybrid employee, and she is an East Asian woman at the manager level.

Manager: I found that remote work is really, really role-based. Sometimes we do need to be in a team working environment for a project. But other than that, if someone can work better and feel more comfortable by working remotely, then why not?

Lucia Rahilly: Let’s start with why a flexible and a hybrid workplace might be especially important to women.

Alexis Krivkovich: While it’s especially important to women, everybody wants to see more flex work built in the future. This is a tectonic shift happening where we collapsed a decade’s worth of technology change, and that is going to revolutionize expectations in the workplace and the physical hybrid and virtual into a much shorter period of time.

The reason it’s a women story is because the number-one thing women cited prepandemic that would help them be more all-in in the workplace was flexibility in a number of different forms. The hours we expect, where you physically get the job done, what we mean by face time, and the value attributed to that.

In this moment, half of women are saying, “It’s a top three criteria when I think about a job opportunity. I value it, and I evaluate it the same way I do benefits and other factors.” They care about it tremendously.

It’s worth noting that part of why they care is because the environment they were in before wasn’t wired perfectly for them. When you look at the experience for women, particularly women of color, particularly those with disabilities, what they describe is an in-person work environment that has more bias, that has more othering and more microaggressions associated with it.

So they value certain elements of virtual interaction because they minimized aspects of that bias they face day in and day out in a way that their male peers don’t.

The virtue of virtual

Lucia Rahilly: What are a few tactics you’ve seen companies use to cultivate a flourishing culture in a hybrid world?

Lareina Yee: It’s important to tee off of what Alexis said, which is one of the things we found, curiously enough, is that when women worked remotely, some of the microaggressions and othering reduced.

This was also true for people with disabilities. This was also true for people of color. So it’s curious because you might say, “Well, then we should just all be virtual.” I think the question to ask is, Why isn’t the in-person experience actually better?

Part of what we’re seeing right now is the transition of, if some things worked well in the virtual world, let’s use that as a point of inspiration for what the in-person experience should be like. Another piece is looking at the sense of timing.

What I mean is that there’s been an enormous amount of time. You now talk to a lot of people who started work in a remote or in a hybrid environment and have never been in person. Whereas in the beginning of COVID-19, people had that. There may be some good reasons to be in the office for apprenticeship, for teamwork, for sense of meaning and connection, for a sense of, as one company talked about, gatherings, which are big cultural moments.

So a lot of people are trying to figure out how to have the best of both, and how to introduce that into the workplace. The data’s showing that women really value organizations that are being creative and thoughtful.

Women are saying flexibility is important. They’re not saying, “I want to be remote five days a week.” They’re saying, “Having the ability at different points in my career to have my workweek look different and have some agency in how I shape that is really important to me.”

Managing managers

Lucia Rahilly: What kind of support are managers getting these days?

Alexis Krivkovich: A number of executives I talk to will admit that they really haven’t done a lot in the past couple of years to upskill and support managers to get to the place they need to be, to show up the way we’re now expecting.

Many managers are saying, “This job has become incredibly hard. It’s no longer just in person. It’s also remote. Some people come in a lot; some people never want to. I have to ensure there’s no bias. I want to make sure there’s productivity.

“I’m asked to check in on well-being, on mental health. I need to rebalance workloads under different conditions in a through cycle with a pandemic. And now the macroeconomic environment is rapidly changing underneath my feet.” It’s an incredible ask.

And when we ask them, “What kind of support do you get for that?” they will tell you that they get no support, in many cases. One thing we see that’s incredibly exciting that companies that are leaning forward on this are doing is they’re not just limiting themselves to, What are the trainings I do around inclusion, bias busting, and the like?

They’re saying, “What are the trainings I do around great managers?” Because great managers create thriving and inclusive teams. And we see that in our own data that HR departments recognize—the vast majority of them—that they’re expecting a lot more of their managers than they did two years ago.

Managers who are great at the job overall are also great at promoting the balance and the opportunity equally among their teams and all talent on their teams.

Alexis Krivkovich

But a fraction of managers, less than 40 percent, would say they actually feel like they get the tools and the support they need to deliver in that way. And one of the areas where we see a lot of movement is, What does it look like to invest? Because managers who are great at the job overall are also great at promoting the balance and the opportunity equally among their teams and all talent on their teams.

Lareina Yee: We ask employees, both men and women, what their experience is like in the workplace. The report says that only 60 percent of women felt they got helpful feedback from their managers. Only 40 percent of them felt that their managers showed an interest in their career. Only 50 percent said that they got some help getting credit for work that they had accomplished or that they’ve worked in environments that encourage respectful behavior.

It’s interesting. That list isn’t about diversity and equity. That feels like pretty basic leadership. And to Alexis’s point, if we’re not actually enabling and empowering our managers to have the tools and the training and support to do that, you’re going to have a pretty poor employee experience.

Lucia Rahilly: Here’s a clip of one of our colleagues, talent leader Bonnie Dowling, talking on a recent episode of McKinsey Talks Talent about the evolving role of managers in this new hybrid world.2Talent in a changing market: What now?,” McKinsey, December 8, 2022.

Bonnie Dowling: It also says, “We’ve got to start training our managers and leaders.” We are in a different world. They need to lead differently. It’s not going to work to do the exact same thing that they did back in 2019. We have a different operating model now, right? We’ve got hybrid, virtual operating. They’re going to have to learn how to actually check in with employees rather than just walk by cubicles and give high fives. And they’re going to have to understand what it means to manage productivity. Butts in seats was never a great measure.

Lucia Rahilly: Do leaders get this when you’re talking to your clients about, for example, attrition and the talent gap? Do you hear them making caring management a priority in any substantive way?

Alexis Krivkovich: Conceptually, I think a number of leaders are recognizing the daylight between strong management skills and those that are lacking. You can see it in every performance team. And we spent a lot of time with leaders talking about how to up the middle performance of their teams.

A lot of that unlock sits with manager capacity. There’s a need, though, to make the link to say, “This should have double or triple wins behind it.” When you get it right, you’re not just investing in good managers, because good managers create productive teams.

You will get more inclusivity. You will get more fairness in the system. You will stamp out more of the bias. Because what we can see is that people default to the mode they’re most comfortable in. And many men will say, “I feel most comfortable sponsoring, mentoring, coaching someone who looks like me, who has had an experience like me, who can relate to me.”

The problem is, when you have a pipeline where four out of every five leaders are men, that’s not going to work. You’re not going to get the support you need. And especially for women of color, you won’t get it at all. That’s precisely what we see in the feedback—that women leaders, particularly women of color, are saying, “I feel like I’m out there left entirely on my own to sort this out.”

Lucia Rahilly: If you’re a manager, where should you begin to focus your energies to really help women members of your team flourish and feel more satisfied at work?

Lareina Yee: I think it comes down to tactics and practical things. For most leaders, there’s nothing that we have said that’s important that they wouldn’t respond with, “Yes, I agree with that.” The question is the execution. And so a practical question is, who do you sponsor in your team, and what percentage of them are women and what percentage of them are people of color? And when you are a sponsor, how often do you check in? What have you celebrated recently?

Creating connectivity

Lucia Rahilly: Both of you are talking to clients every day. Any examples you could share of companies that have figured out how to connect employees despite a hybrid schedule?

Lareina Yee: I was with an amazing female CEO and I asked her, “How are you rethinking things?” One thing that she noticed is that Wednesday is a great day, because many people are converging in the office on Wednesdays. So she went with that instead of a Friday lunch or a Monday huddle. Wednesday’s the day that she’s always in the office, where they do an in-person office lunch, where they do more of the “ask me anythings” and different activities.

She’s very visible on that day. Some of it is just changing your basic assumptions about how to create cultural moments. It was great. I remember having lunch with her on a Wednesday. And it was, like, “My gosh, everybody’s here. Are you all back in person?”

She said, “No, this is just the day that most people come in. It’s also the day that we invest in our social connectivity.” So maybe you make Wednesdays your new Friday.

Diversity is good defense

Lucia Rahilly: How optimistic are you that the outlook for women leaders will actually improve near term in this particular context?

Lareina Yee: I’m always optimistic that things will improve, no matter where the economy is. Because I do think this is a leadership imperative. What we’ve seen over the many years that Alexis and I have done this is that the level of prioritization, the level of urgency, is higher and higher on the agenda of business leaders.

There have been many layoffs. Those are hard experiences for men and women together. And those are hard experiences for leaders. Have you done a check to see if women were disproportionately negatively affected?

Have you thought about diversity through that? And that’s just an example of a nudge. But as we think about some really big things happening, how do we think about the diversity lens together as a complement, as something that makes it stronger? If we have those types of tactical actions paired with an overall philosophical commitment, we’ll get there.

Alexis Krivkovich: The current upheaval raises the bar on having high performance in every team. We’ve long seen the connection between diverse teams and superior performance outcomes. So as a senior leader in this moment, what I’d be thinking about is, how do I ensure I have all the right voices at the table?

Companies are moving incredibly fast, because the external environment is changing so often. So five people around the table all thinking the exact same thing aren’t helpful in this moment when so much is happening out of left field. What you need is five people looking in five totally different directions who can see the next thing coming. So I feel really good about the premium that’s going to be placed on diversity in that context.

Lucia Rahilly: We’ve been talking about the challenges faced by women leaders for what feels like eons at this point. Progress is slow. And in the interim, we have tended, to various degrees, to just keep persisting. What’s at stake here? Why should we continue to care about this issue?

Alexis Krivkovich: Women have graduated with about 50 percent of the college degrees for the past 30 years. In our own pipeline of corporate talent, they’re nearly at 50 percent representation. And for women of color, they’re also nearly at the representation we’d see in the starting workforce.

So we have all the talent out there to draw from. Companies that can’t figure out how to fish in the full pond where all the talent sits will simply lose out over time. Because they will overcompete for a narrower set than what’s available to them in the workforce.

On top of that, we now see for the first time that women leaders are voting with their feet. They’re saying, “I want the return on my investment. I know I’m putting in extra time and doing double duty in some cases. So I will move in the direction of where I see opportunity that rewards that effort.”

When you take that in combination, it suggests that companies that make this a distinctive capability—and this being letting all great talent rise as it deserves to for the effort and performance put in—those companies are going to win.

New generation, rising ambition

Lucia Rahilly: Besides opportunity to advance, what are women under 30 seeking at work?

Alexis Krivkovich: What’s incredibly exciting is that two-thirds of women under 30 want to be senior leaders. I say that’s incredibly exciting because today, only one in four members of the C-suite, and not many more in other senior ranks, are women. And yet women under 30 look up and say, “I want to be there at the top. I want to be shaping these companies.”

That ambition is rising. In fact, over the past two years, 58 percent of women under 30 have said they’ve become more interested in advancement. That shocked me in the context of COVID-19. That they maybe look at this picture and say, “This looks incredibly hard. Burnout, everything,” right?

But no. In fact, what they’re saying is, “Even more than before, I want these opportunities.” I think that’s our bright spot and our opportunity to seize onto. Yet they’re also saying, “I expect something different to place that bet with you, with your company.”

What they expect is that the talk around diversity and inclusion is followed up in the walk and the outcomes that companies are getting. What they expect is that the discussion around a more flexible workplace becomes permanent and baked into practices. What they expect is that they will have that equal opportunity to advance. And our research on the broken rung shows how, persistently, that’s still not true for women. We still see that for every 100 men, only 87 women are moving forward. And that’s got to change.

Lucia Rahilly: Let’s close there. Alexis and Lareina, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. For more on our 2022 Women in the Workplace report, look for the link in our show notes or visit us at McKinsey.com.

Roberta Fusaro: While women continue to struggle to move forward, technology seems to wait for no one—like generative artificial intelligence, or generative AI. If you’re not quite sure what it is, let us help. Here’s an excerpt from our McKinsey Explainer series about generative AI.

AI voice one: Content creators from copywriters to tenured professors are quaking in their boots. It’s because generative artificial intelligence is so sophisticated it can be used to create content, including code, images, text, simulations, videos, and audio. Audio like the one you’re listening to right now.

AI voice two: I, too, am generative-AI audio. Another algorithm which has gotten a lot of attention is ChatGPT. The GPT stands for generative pretrained transformer.

AI voice three: It describes itself as a nifty form of machine learning that allows computers to generate all sorts of content, from music and art to optimizing business processes.

AI voice four: These new breakthroughs in the field have the potential to drastically change the way we approach content creation.

AI voice five: Since these models are so new, we have yet to see the long-tail effect of generative AI. This means that there are some inherent risks involved in using them—some known and some unknown.

AI voice six: It can’t be emphasized enough that this is a new field. The landscape of risks and opportunities is likely to change rapidly in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Laurel Moglen: But for now, like right now, you’re listening to me, a human, Laurel Moglen, producer of The McKinsey Podcast. All previous voices for this segment were generative-AI audio. If you’re interested in discovering more in-depth descriptions to complicated questions, go to McKinsey.com, plug in the search term “explainers,” and explore.

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