Parity in a pandemic: An Asia perspective

| Podcast

COVID-19 is confronting companies in Asia with a daunting degree of disruption. The lessons from previous crises tell us there is a very real risk that inclusion and diversity may now recede as a strategic priority for organizations—despite the fact that more diverse companies are most likely to create adaptive and effective teams. In this episode, we discuss Asia’s gender parity landscape and how the region is making progress. How can companies ensure that gender equality remains a core part of their agendas during the downturn, and beyond? For more conversations on Future of Asia, subscribe to our podcast here.

Oliver Tonby: You are listening to the Future of Asia Podcast by McKinsey & Company I am Oliver Tonby, your host and chairman of McKinsey Asia. In this series, we feature leaders from across the region to discuss the forces, the opportunities, and the challenges that are shaping the future of Asia.

So welcome everyone, welcome to the Future of Asia Podcast series. Today’s topic is gender parity and Covid-19, an Asian perspective. I’m very happy that I am joined today by three wonderful guests. I am joined by Mohammad Naciri, by Lareina Yee, and Anu Madgavkar, the latter two both from McKinsey. Let me just start by introducing Mohammad. Mohammad, you come from the UN Women and you are the regional director for Asia and Pacific. Perhaps just introduce UN Women to us.

Mohammad Naciri: Very good day, Oliver. Good day to everyone. UN Women is the youngest organization in the UN. It’s an auspicious opportunity to be with McKinsey. But, in short what we try to do is four things.

The first is that we work very closely with governments and heads of states to change policies and laws that are discriminatory of women and gender, and put more progressive laws to ensure gender diversity and access to both opportunities, [and] also to services. This is the first. The second, we do work on advocacy and norm change, changing the culture and the mindset of all of us where really patriarchal notions are still very much living in our minds.

The third, we try to give examples by what we do and what laws can change the lives of people by doing some programmatic work on the ground, and with that, it informs the policy work that we do but also substantiates it. And finally, we do work with the rest of the UN agencies to make sure that each of the agencies are really working on including gender diversity and gender equality into their work. So this is basically what we do across the globe.

Oliver Tonby: Thank you. And in addition to saying happy birthday let me also just say thank you to you and UN Women for doing what you are doing. This could not be more important.

Let me shift and ask Lareina Yee. Would you mind introducing yourself, Lareina?

Lareina Yee: It’s wonderful to be here, Oliver. So, I’m a senior partner in our San Francisco office and I spent a lot of time serving clients in the technology sector, but most relevant to today’s podcast, what I spend time on is I’m also our chief diversity and inclusion officer, which is about basically shining a light on ourselves and shining a light on the communities around us. That’s a simple version of what I do.

And Oliver, if you’re wondering or just to describe what McKinsey’s commitment is, there are three things that we spend a lot of time on. One is working together with Anu and other colleagues around the world to invest in research and insights because we’re nowhere near gender equality. We’re nowhere near the diversity and equation that we seek to be so we need to understand it better, and we try to bring a global perspective and a data-backed perspective.

The second thing we do is we turn that light right on ourselves. And that’s the work you and I do, Oliver, to say, “How do we think about gender parity and opportunity creation within McKinsey? And how do we get better? How do we stay on our toes on this one?” And the last thing we do is we collaborate with organizations like UN Women, where we know that by arming ourselves together we can come to some solutions and make a difference faster.

Oliver Tonby: Thank you Lareina. And last but not least, Anu. You’ve been leading a lot of the research that we have done globally but also in Asia. Would you mind just introducing yourself to the audience please?

Anu Madgavkar: Sure, Oliver. So I’m Anu Madgavkar and I’m a partner with the McKinsey Global Institute, which is McKinsey’s economics and business research arm. I’m based in Mumbai and a large part of my work globally, as well as in Asia, is around topics of inequality and inclusive growth, with gender parity actually occupying center space with much of the research that we’ve looked at. A variety of topics, including how economic parity is related to parity in society and how disruptive forces like technology are actually changing the parity landscape or, likely to in many ways. All of these topics are more relevant than ever in the COVID-19 context now, and I think what we do as a world and as a society now will have long term-implications for women.

Oliver Tonby: Perfect, thank you. Thank you, Anu. And I suggest we start with you. Let’s start the conversation and let’s start with you, Anu. Can you give a little bit of a... What’s the snapshot? What is the state of play today when it comes to gender parity in Asia?

Anu Madgavkar: So Oliver, I think as we all know, Asia’s not one region, right? And the two words that I like to use to describe Asia are really both diverse and dynamic. This is true in the context of gender parity as well. So if you look at Asia as a whole, and if you think about the overall workforce representation of women, not just in business roles or leadership roles but in the economy overall, what we find is that, for Asia, women account for about or produce and contribute around 36 percent of Asia’s overall GDP.

A variety of topics, including how economic parity is related to parity in society and how disruptive forces like technology are actually changing the parity landscape or, likely to in many ways. All of these topics are more relevant than ever in the COVID-19 context now, and I think what we do as a world and as a society now will have long term-implications for women.

Anu Madgavkar

But this varies a lot by country, so this can be as high as 41 percent in China, which is actually slightly above the global average, but it could be lower in South Asia. So for example, in India this number is closer to 20 percent. So there’s a wide variation there, and similarly, if we look at multiple indicators of gender parity in the economic space, where we look at labor-force participation but we also look at the kinds of roles and occupations that women have, whether they’re represented in technical professional roles and also the equity or lack of equity in the way unpaid care work, which is all of the family-caring responsibilities, are distributed between men and women.

So, if we look at this at a broader level, and our research actually created a scale from one to 10 to see how countries really measure up on these broader dimensions of economic parity. And what we find again, very interestingly in Asia there are countries which are at seven on a scale of one to 10 where 10 represents complete parity. So the Philippines and Singapore are very much at that end of the scale, but again there are countries in South Asia and then there are countries in South Korea or Japan where it’s much more middling. So there is diversity there, but Asia is dynamic.

There are the most fascinating and inspiring stories of progress made on labor-force participation, on financial inclusion of women, on women’s entrepreneurship and wealth creation. So across each of these countries, some of the most dramatic shifts and improvements in women’s parity has also been evident. So, there’s a lot that Asia can gain.

Oliver Tonby: So, let me just follow up there, and I just ask are we moving in the right direction in the last few years?

Anu Madgavkar: So, I think in some aspects, we are. So for example, if you look at the more societal access to things like healthcare, financial inclusion, and access to technology, Asia has made great strides across all countries. I think what’s more muted and also a slightly more mixed pattern is the ability of women to actually step up in the workforce and have a higher share of the most productive roles. I think the issues of mid-career drop-offs in the talent pool of women, the issues of not being really able to take a much larger share of leadership roles, those issues, we are not really moving at the pace we should and I think the root causes for those are, they boil down to some very fundamental attitudes about women’s roles outside of work as well.

Oliver Tonby: Let me shift. Mohammad, what’s your view on this? The current state of play and are we making progress?

Mohammad Naciri: Thank you, Oliver, and thank you, Anu, actually, because you did say that Asia is a few regions in one, which is very, very true. And somehow we need to think and look into not doing comparisons between apples and oranges, but unfortunately with all the good things that have been happening in Asia, it is still the only region that is either stagnating or decreasing when it comes to women’s participation in the labor force, and that has been noticed over the past few years. Many reasons there, but as you rightly said, Anu, it is the cultural norms and expectations from women not only in Asia, it’s a global thing.

And before we went live, Lareina was saying that she started her evening shift with her three kids and working in the morning and then having to attend to family needs in the evening, and then it’s a 24-hour job. That is, unfortunately, the norm of every single woman in the region. In some countries, women do up to four times more than their male partners in the home. In other countries, it goes up to 11 times more, and we cannot expect that women are going to be participating with the same energy, with the same determination in the labor force if we’re not going to create an equal system that would allow that in a more equitable way.

Before I go back to you, Oliver, I would also like to think out loud with you and with the audience today. I think it’s very, very important to think about women’s participation and the gender parity between the binaries, but it’s also equally important that we start taking this conversation into diversity and inclusion. And that is across the full spectrum of gender diversity but also across race, color, ethnicity, disability. Unfortunately, we have been having discussions in a siloed piecemeal fashion over the past few decades.

Oliver Tonby: Exactly. You’re saying this is actually about equality and inclusion as opposed to only gender parity.

Mohammad Naciri: Absolutely.

Oliver Tonby: And Lareina, that is exactly what you lead in McKinsey. Would you care to comment on that please?

Lareina Yee: Well, that and my double shift, but putting the double shift aside, which we can come back to because I think there’s a more serious tone rather than the comical tone so we’ll come back to that one, but I think I completely agree with you on the point of diversity. And Oliver, I know we share a lot of passion about this. So we think about diversity, that’s the representation. That’s just if we can count; are there more people with different colors, with different orientations, with maybe different cognitive capabilities, do we have difference around? That’s the first step.

Inclusion is: did you put people of diverse backgrounds at the table? Secondly, do they feel they can contribute? That’s when you’re included. But the better piece is: do you feel you belong? And when you feel you belong, you feel that you are part of that table, you are part of that leadership team, you are part of the collaboration that produces the product, the service, the idea. And what we lack is all three of those pieces.

We are underrepresented in terms of different types of diversity, whether it’s gender, whether in the United States we think about the representation of black professionals in a business setting, whether it’s we think about LGBTQ. So there are many ways that we’re sorely lacking in representation but I think you have to actually ask what you were going to, which is “why”. Why is the culture one that we don’t see these benefits?

And one of the really interesting things is that, I do find in a lot of conversations, and Mohammad and Anu, I know you probably experience this too, you go back to the most fundamental business case, and to me there are a couple of pieces to it. There is the performance benefit and there’s the talent benefit. And from a performance benefit, if we just look at the corporate sector for a second, we know that companies with diverse management teams globally, this is a global statistic, perform at 36 percent higher return on equity. And I think when we put the economic and health crisis into context, it’d be hard to say that you’d be a leadership team that wants to turn away from that right now, or really, ever.

And then the second piece is around talent, and one of the things that we saw in our research in the United States, and I’ll just make a slight research assumption that applies in Asia so just suspend disbelief for a second, but one of the things we found is that employees, both men and women, if they felt and perceived that they worked in a fair workplace they were three times more likely to stay and three times more likely to be happy. So even before you get to social justice and maybe how you feel emotionally about this, it is actually a total net benefit for an organization to have diverse voices, both at the decision-making table and in the population at large if you think about talent retention.

And so I do think there’s a bit of zooming back to that’s why, and then it comes to where you were going which is what would we do to create the type of equality, to create the type of equity and inclusion that so we surely need.

Oliver Tonby: Indeed, and we are going to come back to that. What will it take? Before we go there, can we just zoom into the current. We’re in the middle of a Covid-19 crisis. How is that impacting women and gender parity? I don’t know who wants to go first on that topic.

Anu Madgavkar: It’s impacting women in a very significant way, Oliver. I think of the short answer and that’s both at the level of the humanitarian and health related concerns and risks, which of course do impact women as householders, parents, and of course all of the health-worker segment, which is relatively more dominated by women workers. But even from an economic standpoint there is of course an overall reduction in employment, GDP, aggregate demand, and those impacts are huge.

But what is really interesting and yet disturbing is that the data that we are seeing in a few countries, and we’ve looked at this for the US and India most recently, but what we find is that there is a 40 to 50 percent higher propensity for a woman to actually lose her employment even in the current data and statistics around how unemployment is hitting workforces in these two countries. And that’s partly because women are sometimes concentrated in sectors more vulnerable to job loss in the Covid scenario, which is things like accommodation, food services, retail.

So that’s because of the sectors they’re employed in but it’s also of course the fact that there are other non-purely-economic considerations that kick in. The most important of these is just the burden of caring for the family, which has risen a lot with Covid, with children at home and the difficulty of getting help to actually do all the stuff that living is about, which is the cooking and the cleaning and the supervision of children and so forth. And that load of work has disproportionately fallen on women, which means more women have found that they just can’t cope and they opt out.

And then of course there are a whole set of other complications and biases, and evidence does show that it is easier to actually fire a woman and harder for a woman to actually get rehired for a whole bunch of other reasons, which are to do with softer biases.

Lareina Yee: And Anu, I so agree with what you’re saying, maybe just to take that as an example, one you and I have worked on. We have the conditions for the perfect storm here, and by the way the storm started before Covid. So if you were looking at this in January, one of the things that we have all been talking about is how automation will disrupt fundamentally the jobs and that that is a huge reskilling challenge. Something we’ve talked a lot about.

Let’s take your example with the retail sector. Let’s just say that there’s a woman in the retail sector in Asia. She was already, maybe she’s what we now call a frontline worker, she’s a retail worker. That profession is highly dominated by women just like construction work tends to be more men, but not exclusively so. That industry was already being fundamentally reshaped by automation and technology for which you may need less storefronts, for which you may automate the work that’s done in the store to connect to customers. All of that was already happening.

She was already trying to reskill, and so then Covid hits and all of those retail shops shut down. They furlough, they may have uneven benefits. We actually haven’t thought about the way in which we think through those benefits so it’s been very uneven. Some places have provided extra insurance, some places didn’t, all kinds of things.

So you have that and then I think you take a step in her shoes. She may have as much as maybe high-school education. She’s trying to invest in her education but guess what? She goes home and she takes her second shift of unpaid work, the care, the cooking, the cleaning. And the retraining and the self-education is out of your cellphone, your mobile phone. But by the way, she may be in a family where there’s only one or two technology devices, and we know in Asia in particular those tend to go to men first. So she doesn’t really have access to either go to a school or take an online class.

So you start to see, just to bring what you’re saying down to the individual experience, you start to say she did all the right things leading up to the point to which her sector, her job was disintermediated, you have Covid, you have a double shift in terms of the structured expectations, and it’s actually hard to get access to the economic resources and opportunities that bring you back to the workforce.

And we have seen it in an implicit bias and an unconscious consequence that every time we’ve seen a major recession, women’s jobs have been more vulnerable and have come back more slowly, and so I think it’s not any one thing, it is that perfect storm of many factors which mean that it’s not surprising when, Anu, you say that in India and the US for example, 40 percent higher propensity to lose their job. And that’s a shocking statistic but when I think about that retail worker and the journey it’s not so shocking.

Oliver Tonby: This is a shocking statistic and a perfect storm. This is a bad cycle. Mohammad, I don’t know if you’ve looked at how do we break out of this cycle?

Mohammad Naciri: As you rightly said, Lareina, and as you rightly said, Oliver, Covid has only been the accelerator and amplifier of discrimination and it has framed it squarely in our faces, probably as nothing ever before. On one hand, in a very twisted way I think it is a good thing because it has been tabling the issue like never before in every forum. And this is a good start because it is where we need to go when it comes to political will to change things, but also pushing the different constituencies to take action. So it’s not only the responsibility of the member states, or the UN, or the civil society, but one of the major partners in this is definitely the private and the corporate sector.

And the entry point is what you said, Lareina, it’s not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. If you want to thrive, if you want... We’re not even at a thriving moment now. If you want to survive, it’s an act of survival that you need to be inclusive, and you need to be diverse, and you need to bring women and other gender and diverse groups onboard because those are going to be formulating decisions and actions that are going to be suited to a whole of a society.

So this is on the larger picture, Oliver, but if we are going to look into businesses I think we need to look into four processes where we need to be more inclusive. First, when we start with the recruitment, and we need really to go beyond the tokenism because as you rightly said, Lareina, you need to feel that you belong. So it’s not only just ticking the box that my color is not white or I do belong to a different ethnic group.

The retention, and the retention here is about creating an equal system that would make those who come into the space do not leave it because they have to go back home to another shift, or because their male partners, if they are in a heterosexual relationship, earn more, or because that the access to opportunities and facilities are not there, including childcare facilities, for example.

The third is the progression with the business because we need to include opportunities that are tailored to the different diverse groups. Not all opportunities for progression can suit everyone equally.

And finally, it is the talent management, and this is where different groups need to be looked at, and we need to utilize and manage talent beyond necessarily their terms of reference in every business to maximize the utilization of the opportunity and the return. And if that means that we need to take temporary special measures, maybe, on a temporary basis to make sure that we do raise the numbers of those who are underrepresented.

We need to go beyond the numbers, as you rightly said, Lareina. We need to look into the cultures, and the culture is very patriarchal in every space we occupy, and we need to work on long change. Yes, we are looking for immediate and quick fixes and we need to continue looking into that, but in parallel we really need to work on a longer term change of norms. And with this we will not make any dent if we’re not going to attend to four issues. Education, media, cultural norms, and religious interpretations of what equality means, and we really need to tackle all these. Until now, on all these pillars there’s a huge tilting towards a patriarchal space there.

Anu Madgavkar: I just wanted to pick up on the cultural dimension that Mohammad underscored as being so important, and I completely agree. When we looked at survey data, there is something called the World Value Survey, and they actually assess how both men and women think and feel about really fundamental topics and questions, and the one thing that leaps out is this statement that says, “When women work for pay, their children suffer.”

And the survey asks respondents whether they agree or not, and it’s striking not only that for example in Asia nearly half of all respondents actually agree with that statement, but it’s also striking that in a whole set of discussions with women cutting across educational levels even at the top of their profession, even for me personally over the years when I reflect on my children and my work, this sort of thought does bubble up and you do wonder whether there is a trade-off and whether you have obligations that are different because you’re a woman.

And therefore all of these levers that Mohammad talked about, the media, or government action, or things that companies can do to really surface that very fundamental set of beliefs, patriarchal beliefs, if you will, about what women should do and what men should do, I think is absolutely critical.

Lareina Yee: Well, Anu, I would even put a stronger statement on that because we need to think through how we can expand the horizons of our younger future leaders, our kids, because there’s a short little phrase... Somebody gave me this little plaque to put in my office and it says, “If she can see it, she can be it.” And you say, “Oh my gosh, that’s like a Hallmark card,” or something like that, it’s a greeting card, but I think it’s so simple but it’s true. If all she sees, if all little girls see are women in unpaid care, they do not realize that they can be excellent mothers and that is super valuable, but that there are also options to be the CEO of a company or that you can be a great mother and a CEO, or an executive, or a teacher, or a healthcare professional. Many, many, many things.

And so, I think the challenge is our young women and girls don’t see enough role models of the diversity, of types of futures they can have. And if they can’t see it, it’s hard to believe and it’s hard to trail blaze all on your own. Certainly they can do that but it would be great if they could see that diversity.

And just one thing on the media, this is a US statistic but it may be quite interesting for viewers in Asia, which is that one of the Hollywood actors and her research team counted in movies the percentage of roles to which women appear, thinking that Hollywood movies really affect this small phrase I said, “If she can see it, she can be it.” And they looked at background roles because clearly for leading roles it was clear that wasn’t going to have any gender parity. And so they’re looking at background roles, the things you see in the movie like firefighters, policemen, teachers, receptionists, all the background roles to create a scene and they found 17 pecent women were represented a few years ago in Hollywood films in the background.

So if I’m a young girl and I look at the movies and I only see 17 percent, is it surprising that I don’t imagine I could be a scientist, I don’t imagine I could be a nurse? I just don’t even see myself represented in the way in which society reflects back to our youth. And so I just think it, to this culture point, Mohammad and Anu, there is a bigger piece here. Now the solutions are not easy so I don’t have any silver bullet on it, but just acknowledging it’s a really big challenge.

Oliver Tonby: Asia’s standing in the world has changed, and it’s clear that where the focus once was on how quickly the region would rise, the reality is now all about how Asia will lead. Keep listening to the Future of Asia Podcast.

But I do want to shift us into the solutions. I know this is not easy. So let’s start digging a little bit further into that, and I think Mohammad, you teed up a few when it comes to the companies, but even before we get there let’s talk a little bit about the culture, which is a broader societal culture issue that we have.

You mentioned education, media, cultural norms, religious interpretation. What are some of the solutions that you see to the cultural part of this?

Mohammad Naciri: Some are easy fixes, Oliver. Looking into the education curriculum, you don’t need to have any more examples that, say, my father goes to the field to work, my mother stays at home to cook, because you do find these sentences in education curriculum across the region, across the globe. And as you rightly said, Lareina, if you’re a five- or six-year-old, a boy or a girl, reading these sentences then you will grow up with these power dynamics and stereotypical roles in mind.

So those can be easy fixes in education curriculum, and the tricky part there, Oliver, is that when we did work and we are still working with the political levels of government including minsters of education, you do find unequivocally the political will to change things. It’s only when this trickles down to those who are sitting and writing the curriculum themselves that you hit a wall. So this is one.

The other is a more aware and a more responsible media that is looking into the diversification of roles, not boxing women as the victim, or the Cinderella, or the Snow White who’s waiting for Prince Charming to come on a white horse. These narratives need to change and we’ve seen over the past few years some good attempts where Disney and the likes are taking conscious decisions to look into that, where the cultural norms and the cultural spaces including pop culture, Barbie doesn’t have to be blonde and blue-eyed. It can be of Asian origin or it can be a black person.

So the religious interpretations, and that’s something that I’ve worked on a lot when I was in the Middle East and North Africa, is that we really need to separate what is religious and what is traditional. And one specific example about the Islamic faith that I belong to and I worked on for some time, they do give value to unpaid care work, and the text goes as follows, “If the woman chooses not to be active outside the household, she does have the right to be financially remunerated for what she does inside the house from all the chores, including breastfeeding her own kids if she wishes, but if she decides to forego that right it’s an act of compassion from her own end to bring the family together.” So the right was there but it’s been always neglected because those penholders on the religious texts are men. So these are some of the things that we can look at and revisit with a fresh eye, with a more inclusive approach.

Oliver Tonby: And Anu, you have looked at this across Asia, so expand a little bit on this please.

Anu Madgavkar: Thank you, Mohammad, for bringing us this amazing insight about how the religious texts value unpaid care work. We’ve looked at it in the modern context and if you applied a similar principle and actually did a fair value of the value of the work itself, we find that across Asia this could be a three and a half to four trillion economy.

The care economy is actually huge and there is actually a huge opportunity for a public/private sort of approach with the governments across countries recognizing that building the care economy is a public good, because like other forms of infrastructure it actually enables women to come into the workforce. And private organizations see this as an opportunity to really create a whole new professional services industry, with all the good aspects of training, and certification, and reliability, that one should expect from work of this importance.

So a collaboration with public funding, private innovation to really create this care economy could not only enable many more women to come into work but also actually create jobs for both men and women but predominantly for women in this care economy.

We live in a different time where if you think of something called stakeholder capitalism, the role of companies has shifted. So the bottom line on that is that it’s not optional to be a leader and a player in creating more social and economic justice. It is actually a requirement.

Lareina Yee

Oliver Tonby: And just to put that in context, you said three and a half to four trillion. That is significantly bigger than the size of the economy of India today or the size of ASEAN economy today, so these are huge numbers that you’re pointing to, Anu. Thank you for that. I want to zoom in on what companies could do. What companies could do and what the leaders of those companies should do. I think Mohammad, you talked earlier about recruitment, retention, progression, talent management. I know, Lareina, you do a lot of work on this with clients and in the firm too. So what are the things that you see that companies need to do?

Lareina Yee: Many things, but to start... Mohammad is laughing on mute when I said many things because it’s a very truthful answer. One thing I think that’s important to recognize is the role of business has shifted. A decade ago, two decades ago you could have said that the contribution, the most meaningful way to contribute to the economic parity of women in society is to use your CSR funding, your philanthropic dollar, and to use it in a really thoughtful way. And I think companies did an amazing job with this and there’s some amazing impact stories, but I think we live in a different time where if you think of something called stakeholder capitalism, or sometimes we call it 21st century company, the role of companies has shifted.

So the bottom line on that is that it’s not optional to be a leader and a player in creating more social and economic justice. It is actually a requirement. And so let me break that down into what that has meant during Covid for some companies acting this way. So for example, and this is a US example, where we don’t have in the United States necessarily, regulation or norms around childcare. Several companies paid additional for childcare stipends, and reimbursements, or types of benefits. Several companies extended healthcare insurance for furloughed employees without actually waiting for the government to ask them to do so. Several companies actually have thought through, even before Covid, raising minimum wage.

And so some of that is actually across everyone benefits but thinking through that role, I talked to a company that said they had a small little technique, which is they had so many, a high population of single working parents or mothers in particular, during Covid they had a high concentration plus many of them had children under 10, that they created a code that you could put in your calender that was time that you needed to spend because you had to take care of your kids, and that basically bounced back that you were not available.

So from everything from small tactics to larger policy changes during Covid, we’ve seen a lot of creativity about how companies have stepped in to support women and to take into consideration the context as opposed to waiting, necessarily, for government policy to think through. There just isn’t enough time. Covid hit so quickly that even though there could have been some great policies issued, there just wasn’t time to wait for that. The time was to actually take practical action.

So I do think that’s a huge role of business, and then I think the tactical work beyond Covid is to take a look at how we have fundamentally changed and rearchitected how we work. Access to technology has accelerated. The ways in which we can work from home, work from work, or even how we construct those jobs has changed. And so for many people and for women in particular, this flexibility could be a huge benefit. It doesn’t probably feel like that for people like myself who are still sheltered in in their respective cities, but as we get past Covid’s extreme health crisis there can be some really interesting opportunities, and I think companies have to be on the forefront of redefining some of those benefits and standards in a way that helps women.

Mohammad Naciri: If you allow me, Oliver, just to share some reflections on what you said, Lareina, which is very, very valid, but I would like to underline one word, which you have mentioned more than once. It’s several companies. Several, not many. And recent research that we’ve done here in a survey that we’ve done with 65 CEOs of private sector companies here in the region, asking them a simple question, “Do you think Covid will impact on women?” Most of them said yes. But when we dug deeper to see what type of action have they taken, it’s only 29 percent of them who have taken action on that.

So this is something that we need to be very aware of. When we see Mad Men in the 50s, 70 years ago, we do see that the corporate sector was designed around the white man. And it served the white man and it moved from the global north to the global south with the same kind of setup. So if you have access to an education grant it only kicks in when the child starts school because they are taking for granted that there is a woman sitting back home for the first five years taking care of the child without any kind of support.

When you have paternity leave it’s only for women and men will take maybe two weeks, and it’s culturally frowned upon. “Oh, are you going to leave now and stay with your kids? That is not very manly.” The competencies required to join multinationals are very much based on the western education. And as you rightly said, Lareina, the flexible work arrangements are only serving the elite of us who have the capacity and affordability to make sure that all other things at home are being taken care of by others, or the burden is being shared by the partner.

One of the major issues that we maybe need to think about it redefining what workspace means because this has direct relation to what companies are putting in place when it comes to anti-harassment policies, anti-violence policies because if you have your own staff member working from her home, or his home, or their home, and being subjected to violence, and harassment, and bullying, et cetera, what action are you going to take? And these are the kinds of questions that we need to ask ourselves and we need to put out there collectively to think about.

Lareina Yee: But Mohammad, the 26 percent, just to push on that for one second. So I am generally an optimist, so 26 percent is a critical mass that can be a tipping point. It is definitely not pervasive, it is definitely not enough, but if we get a critical mass of leadership that starts walking, talking, acting differently, others will follow because the path to 100 percent, I have to hit 20, 30, 40. And so I do think there’s something optimistic.

The other thing I think about what you said, and Oliver I know you have a comment, is that I do think that for corporations, the complexity of what you have to think through, just the list you just gave, is hugely different and we have to be pretty courageous to take some of that head on because you can’t just say, “Well, what’s in the work is in the work.”

And the last thing is I do think there have been some really interesting innovation in different types of jobs. In particular we’ve seen some pretty interesting accelerations of work from home for call center workers, for example, so I do think we have to force ourselves. Yes, it is easy if you’re an elite professional but I don’t think Covid has only accelerated technology empowerment for those jobs. At least I really hope it hasn’t just been contained to that.

Oliver Tonby: Listen, I’m going to start wrapping us up in a couple of minutes, but before we do, we have not talked much about women in leadership or women leaders. It’s a topic... We’ve focused on many other things but let’s talk a little bit about right now the representation in the funnel, as we know, is significantly too low at the C suite. What are some of the things that companies should do to increase women representation all the way through the funnel and all the way to the top of the house, so to speak. Anu.

Anu Madgavkar: I think it goes back to, first and foremost, a very strong commitment from leaders at the top to say that this is not a sign of a healthy organization or a high-performing one indeed, and therefore this is something we want to change. So commitment from CEOs is, I think we have the evidence to say that that accompanied by all those signals getting picked up and then translated into real processes down the line is a crucial prerequisite.

I think on top of that, to really think about a couple of core processes, one is really around sponsorship and opportunity creation because a lot of companies have the issue that at the beginning of the funnel there is reasonably good female representation but then there is a lot of mid-career either plateauing or drop-off. So how do you create the most exciting opportunities for women in equal numbers at the right points in their career to make sure that they have the opportunity to advance and they have people that they can work with, leaders that they can work with who can help them in that. So that’s one.

The second thing is I think to systematically devise a whole lot of processes around recruitment of course, but also evaluation, and promotion, and all of those things. So there’s a lot more as Lareina said, many, many things, and maybe I’ll hand over to her to talk a bit more about some of them.

Lareina Yee: Well, I agree. It starts with leadership commitment and we don’t have enough of it so I completely agree with your list. I also just think that in a world where we have to rethink almost everything with Covid, we just need to be a lot bolder in the solution set. So in some ways I think companies have been constrained to a certain set of actions, and I do think we have to start saying if you were to reimagine and if you were to almost take the Covid example, if you could instead of taking 10 years, how much progress could we make in a year? And then say, “What would that lead us to do?” But to Mohammad’s piece, any type of corporate action has to take into consideration culture so that’s going to be a big piece that we have to look at together.

Mohammad Naciri: It’s important as well to ask ourselves, Oliver, before we see how we are going to address that, is where do women and other genders sit in the C suite? Is it the director of research or the director of gender inclusion and diversity? Or is it what the businesses see as the hardcore? The director of sales, director of marketing, et cetera, et cetera. And it’s very important that we move beyond tokenism there and make it more inclusive.

It’s very interesting. In our cases, the UN, we have been pushing for gender parity and then we did pride ourselves in September 2018 by saying, “Oh, all the senior heads of UN agencies now are at parity level, 50/50 [50 percent/50 percent]. But when you dig deeper it’s the men in the organization who hold 92 percent of the financial power of the organization, as the UN. So the other 50 percent of women who are holding offices at the head of agency are heading smaller agencies with less power so we need to think about that.

But when we ensure that they go to the C-suite, we need to focus on the progression there. So yes to recruitment, yes to retention, but more on the progression. And with the progression, as you rightly said, Anu, you need to have an executive will to push for a certain group of people whether it was women, or other genders, or other minority groups, but also to create an equal system and an organization that facilitates that. Whether you are ensuring that there are care facilities for children, whether you are ensuring that there are enough days for maternal leave, whether you are ensuring that you have the systems that would allow for flexible working modalities for all, not only for the privileged ones. It is only then when women and others can progress and make it up to the senior level.

Oliver Tonby: Thank you. Listen, I’m going to ask each of you two rapid fire questions to wrap up this podcast. The first question is a simple one. If you look now, where we are today and into the future, are you an optimist or are you a pessimist? And why? Who wants to go first? Mohammad?

Mohammad Naciri: An optimist of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have been here. And why? Because it makes sense and it is our only way to continue to exist as a human race otherwise we are going to be extinct.

Oliver Tonby: Anu?

Anu Madgavkar: An optimist of course, and I do think periods of dramatic disruption and suffering can also be periods from which eventually innovation and good can come out, and therefore I’m hoping that through this period models like flex, like work from home actually become much more viable for everybody and enable much more participation.

Yes to recruitment, yes to retention, but more on the progression. And with the progression, you need to have an executive will to push for a certain group of people whether it was women, or other genders, or other minority groups, but also to create an equal system and an organization that facilitates that.

Mohammad Naciri

Oliver Tonby: Lareina.

Lareina Yee: Raging optimist. Look, I think I’m optimistic because in addition to what Mohammad and Anu said, I do have irrational faith or rational faith that institutions are self-correcting and have the capacity to change and that as leaders our responsibility is to be part of those institutions to navigate the change.

Oliver Tonby: Thank you, each. Now, final question for you. What is the one piece of advice or suggestion you have for a CEO of a company? And you are not allowed to agree with or say the same thing as the last person, so it has to be something new and fresh. Again, why don’t we go in the same order? Mohammad, you go first.

Mohammad Naciri: There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Look within,” so it’s important that you start by your own self as a CEO, reflect, take stock of your own biases and see where you want to change. So start with yourself.

Anu Madgavkar: For me it would be have the courage to challenge orthodox beliefs and break some glass because you may be underestimating how ready the world is, particularly younger folk that you want to appeal to as employees or customers and their readiness to change. You may be underestimating that.

Lareina Yee: 50 percent diverse management leadership. A CEO can, over time, change his management team to be 50 percent diverse across gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, many different dimensions. You can build a diverse leadership team. I’ve seen it. It doesn’t happen overnight but the impact that has is huge on the organization.

Oliver Tonby: Thank you. Listen, let me just say a huge thank you to each one of you. You’ve been a wonderful team of guests. I really, really appreciate that. Let me just end by saying listen, 50% of the world’s talent, of the world’s leadership potential happen to be women. It goes without saying why this is a number one priority. And to repeat Anu’s words, we’re living in a period of disruption. Let’s be willing to break some glass to move this forward. So I hope everybody out there takes that as a bit of a wakeup call to all of us to look within ourselves and simply get on with this.

Thank you everyone, and thank you to the panelists again, and thank you all for listening. Take care.

You have been listening to the Future of Asia Podcast by McKinsey & Company To learn more about McKinsey, our people, our latest thinking, visit us at or find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

Explore a career with us