By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a report in this month’s McKinsey Quarterly, researchers Joanna Barsh, Sandra Nudelman, and Lareina Yee, have significant found real-world evidence to support the research the team has put forth over the past few years on the business case for women. They write:

“Encouragingly, many of the themes identified in our research over the years—for example, the importance of having company leaders take a stand on gender diversity, the impact of corporate culture, and the value of systematic talent-management processes—loom large for these companies. This continuity is reassuring: it’s becoming crystal clear what the most important priorities are for companies and leaders committed to gender-diversity progress.”

Topping the list of what makes diversity programming work is an emotionally committed CEO, who is motivated to tell the diversity story and tout accomplishments in the space not simply because it is good for business, but because he or she feels it is right.

They researchers explain, “CEOs and senior executives of our top companies walk, talk, run, and shout about gender diversity. Their passion goes well beyond logic and economics; it’s emotional.”

Diversity managers can site study after study about the importance of gender equality. But what really hits the point home is a powerful discussion of diversity by corporate leaders, and meaningful action following that guidance.


Barsh, Nudelman, and Yee cite the CEO’s emotional commitment as the key to unlocking company-wide commitment to gender diversity. While the business case can be useful, it’s the storytelling by the CEO that makes the difference. They explain:

“Numbers matter, but belief makes the case powerful. Real stories relayed by the CEO and other top leaders—backed by tangible action—can build an organizational commitment to everything from creating an even playing field to focusing on top talent to treating everyone with respect. Each time a story is told, the case for diversity gets stronger and more people commit to it.”

The CEO sets the example for others to follow – that leadership opens doors to gender diversity commitment on behalf of others throughout the chain of command.

The next issue is the duration of that emotional leadership commitment, the authors write. And that duration has to be: forever. While initiatives and programs are important, leadership should be tasked with creating a culture of diversity. “Values last if they are lived every day by the leadership on down. If gender diversity fits with that value set, almost all the people in an organization will want to bring more of themselves to work every day,” they write.


Beyond leadership commitment, they continue, diversity programs and initiatives need to be driven by data and culture. That pipeline must be filled by an earnest commitment to increasing diversity at every level. Specifically, they point out, simply adding a few women’s names to a list for a job everyone knows they won’t get isn’t enough. There has to be a careful work done by talent management professionals to identify top talent and create pathways to real achievement.

“It’s critical to identify talented women and look for the best career paths to accelerate their growth and impact. Many companies convince themselves that they are making gender-diversity progress by creating succession-planning lists that all too often name a few female ‘usual suspects,’ whose real chances for promotion to the top are remote.”

Rather, the research shows, senior leaders have to get involved in women’s success through sponsorship and advocacy for diversity.

Finally, they add, the importance of boardroom diversity shouldn’t be ignored. There is a significant correlation between boardroom gender diversity and diversity in the executive suite. “Leaders at many companies encourage female (and male) board members to establish relationships with potential future women leaders and to serve as their role models or sponsors,” they write.

They continue, “And it was clear from our interviews that the boards of the best-performing companies provide much-needed discipline to sustain progress on gender diversity, often simply by asking, ‘Where are the women?’”

By working with HR teams, board members should identify top talent and help groom them for success. By identifying talented women, sponsoring their career development, and providing opportunities for advancement, companies can increase gender diversity at the top.