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Taking the lead for inclusion

For pioneering organizations, inclusiveness is fundamental to enhancing gender parity and overall diversity, and results in financial and organizational performance. Overall, employees with a low perception of inclusiveness in their organization state that they have already given up on career opportunities due to their environment—and this is particularly true for women. So, how can companies build and promote inclusiveness? What are the mechanisms in play to increase diversity at the top?

It has been over a decade since McKinsey published its first Women Matter report back in 2007. This pioneering study highlighted the correlation between the presence of women at board and top-management level and companies’ organizational and financial performance. Since then, this link has been confirmed many times, and we have come a long way in establishing the business impact of broader diversity at the top of corporations.

From gender diversity to broader inclusion

While gender diversity is still at the core of diversity policies and actions, mature organizations are also now addressing inclusive culture, mindsets, and processes to ensure that all employees feel that they belong, are treated fairly, and can be successful as their true selves. They have adopted a wide definition of diversity for the scope of their transformation to include not only gender, but also ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, religion, disability, and variety in educational background and experience.

This approach constitutes the very definition of what McKinsey calls ‘inclusiveness’, translating into three dimensions within organizations:

  • Openness – it is safe to express thoughts, ideas, and concerns.
  • Equality – there is a perception of fairness, an equal chance for all employees to succeed.
  • Belonging – employees share a positive connection to each other and the organization.

Ensuring a truly inclusive work environment is key to develop and retain women on their way to the top

As part of our effort, we conducted a survey among the 2,000+ Women’s Forum 2019 Global Meeting participants, alongside qualitative interviews with 15 international organizations across a variety of sectors.

We found that, overall, people’s perception of their organizations’ inclusiveness seems to be at a good starting point, with one critical exception: equality of treatment. Only 67 percent of employees state that people of different backgrounds have an equal chance of being promoted and 69 percent for an equal chance of being hired.

However, this survey highlights significant differences between men and women’s perception of inclusiveness, and illustrates once more how much an inclusive culture is critical for women’s development. Generally, women score their organization’s inclusiveness lower than their male colleagues do, particularly on both the openness and equality dimensions:

  • 18 percent fewer women feel comfortable sharing opinions or ideas that challenge the status quo in their organization (75 percent of women vs 93 percent of men).
  • 23 percent fewer women feel people of different backgrounds have an equal chance of being promoted (66 percent of women compared to 89 percent of men).

It becomes an even bigger problem when this perceived lack of inclusiveness can cause a woman’s career progress to stall and even stagnate. 42 percent women opted not to pursue or accept a position because they believed the organization would not be an inclusive place to work, vs 32 percent of men.

Inclusion is therefore a key differentiating factor to retain and develop all talents on their way to the top. Not only do companies need to build a supportive culture of diversity, but above all, they need to get on the path to inclusion to thrive in the future. This means being able to capture the evolving expectations of consumers but also attract new generations of employees.

Such transformations require time and sustained effort but are necessary to address the diversity challenges. Embedding inclusive behaviors, while also working on systems and processes, can help organizations make a quantum leap toward true diversity.


This study was published on the occasion of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society 2019 Global Meeting, of which McKinsey is the Knowledge Partner. The study’s key insights were shared during the CEO Champions Initiative, a working lunch that gathers 60+ international top executives who drive measurable progress for women’s advancement in their organizations through on-record mutual commitments and accountability.

About the author(s)

Sandra Sancier-Sultan is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Paris office, where Diana Garibian is a senior consultant; Julia Sperling-Magro is a partner in the Frankfurt office.

The authors would like to thank Elodie Goblot and Tanina Sehl for their contribution.