By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week McKinsey released the fifth installment of its Women Matter research series. The report, “Women Matter: Making the Breakthrough” discusses the challenges firms face in the implementation of gender diversity initiatives.

Many companies have made significant efforts to attract and retain more female talent, writes Eric Labaye, Director of Global Knowledge and Communications for McKinsey and Company. “Nevertheless, many companies also express frustration that their efforts do not always gain traction. The truth is, putting initiatives in place does not guarantee they will be well executed.”

In the report, McKinsey looks at the specific challenges companies face in the day-to-day reality of gender programming. Additionally, it shares the characteristics of the most successful companies when it comes to gender diversity through the ranks. Labaye continues:

“The best-performing companies in terms of the proportion of senior positions filled by women all have a critical mass of initiatives in place within what our earlier research established as a supporting ecosystem. But they excel on three particular fronts: they have the highest levels of management commitment, they monitor women’s representation carefully, and they seek to address men’s and women’s mindsets the better to support gender diversity.”

According to the study, there are specific pain points that companies can address to increase the effectiveness of their initiatives.

Changing Awareness

In producing the report, McKinsey’s researchers interviewed senior executives at 235 European companies, the majority of them being the continent’s largest ones. The firm supplemented this information with a web survey of 1,768 male and female middle managers or lower.

The research revealed that in recent years, many executives have shifted their focus to gender diversity, and, in fact, was a top ten strategic priority for more than half of the companies participating in the research. This was twice the number in 2010. And, in fact, gender diversity is increasing in some areas – for example, female board directors have increased significantly, due in part to quotas, McKinsey says, but also do to an increase in public discourse about women in leadership.

On the other hand, women still hold very few senior level positions. The report continues:

“Indeed, in only 8 percent of the biggest companies in the survey did women account for more than a quarter of the top jobs. It is important to note that a number of companies have only recently embarked on gender diversity programs, so it may take time for them to see results. But we should not ignore the fact that some companies admit their initiatives are not always gaining traction, particularly with managers lower down the organization.”

While senior leaders may support gender diversity enthusiastically, the sticking point is often middle management and in the implementation of the programs.

Cultural Attitudes

Cultural attitudes – within the corporation and within a national context – are one reason gender diversity initiatives get stuck. McKinsey discusses issues like expectations men and women have about women’s interest and ability to take on risky projects or jobs with intense work hours. Many men also do not recognize additional challenges that women face, with 65 percent believing that their companies’ evaluation techniques treated men and women equally, compared with 30 percent of women.

Additionally, support for gender diversity programs seems to decrease with seniority. This is a challenge, the report says, because the mid-management level is where interactions begin. “The closer to the front line, the less support there appears to be for gender diversity initiatives, suggesting companies still have considerable work to do to change attitudes within the organization,” says the report.

As for the most successful programs, McKinsey suggests companies addressing cultural issues for gender imbalances are the ones where diversity programs are more effective. “McKinsey work has shown that corporate transformations that address the underlying attitudes that prevent change are four times more likely to succeed than those that tackle only the symptoms of resistance,” the report says.

Clear senior support for gender diversity is critical for successful programs, but it’s not the only factor. According to McKinsey, companies also have to address cultural issues at play, within the organization that may be subtlety driving inequality. As the report says, “Companies must understand the unhelpful attitudes and beliefs that prevail among men and women alike in their companies, then work to change them.”