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Making the breakthrough in gender diversity

Diversity and inclusion

Making the breakthrough in gender diversityMcKinsey’s Women Matter research has been working for a number of years to establish the business case for increasing the number of women in senior management positions. Their latest research found that of 235 European companies only 8 percent had women occupying more than a quarter of senior positions. This is despite the fact that over 90 percent of these companies had gender diversity programs in place.

Women Matter 2012: Making the Breakthrough explores the reasons why gender diversity initiatives may not be gaining traction with employees and provides insights on moving forward. The authors found that breakthrough moments typically occurred when senior management were visibly committed to gender diversity and were aware of women’s representation at every level within the organisation. Senior management also play a significant role in influencing the mindsets that prevented women’s progress, and implementing targeted initiatives at particular stress points in the organisation.


This report aimed to explore the reasons why women are still largely underrepresented at a senior level and to provide companies with practical insights on how to make the final breakthrough in achieving gender diversity.  


McKinsey surveyed 235 European companies across France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Luxembourg. The majority of these companies (75 percent) have more than 10,000 employees and/or annual revenues greater than €1 billion.

The research comprised three components:

  • A quantitative questionnaire to record women’s representation in the workplace. Three quarters of companies shared this data, with the remaining 25 percent either not participating in the questionnaire or opting not to share the data
  • A qualitative interview with a senior stakeholder to discuss their organisation’s gender diversity initiatives and how successfully they had been implemented. All companies participated in this interview
  • An optional, web-based survey completed by 1,786 middle managers and lower in companies from Germany, France, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.


A comparison of annual reports revealed that, since the first Women Matter study in 2007, women’s representation on executive committees has risen to only 10 percent in nine European countries. As women move higher in the organisation, their odds for advancement become increasingly unfavourable. These odds vary per industry, where women have a relatively better chance of promotion in transport and logistics or energy and basic materials, than they do in financial services.

The report builds on the Women Matter findings in 2010, where it was identified that gender diversity was best supported by an ecosystem of initiatives consisting of management commitment, women’s development programs and a set of enablers (see figure 1).

Findings from the most recent Women Matter study indicate that, while over 90 percent of companies had initiatives in place, success has been hindered by poor implementation and top management commitment not always being replicated lower down in the organisation.

  1. Woman’s development programs, in particular, have suffered from poor implementation: While 69 percent of companies said they had a mentoring program for women, only 16 percent were judged to be well implemented. Fast waning enthusiasm from both mentors and mentees was cited by some respondents as a challenge faced in creating successful programs
  2. The closer to the front line, the less support there is for gender diversity initiatives: While companies rated management commitment to gender diversity highly at a CEO level (41 percent), there was a perception that senior managers and vice presidents (25 percent), as well as middle managers (17 percent), were less supportive. The web survey of middle managers supported this result.
  3. Effective initiatives were broadly applied across the organisation, carefully monitored and well communicated: Companies judged to be making progress with gender diversity had a rigorous system in place to monitor women’s representation. The survey found that, on average, those companies with limited diversity practices had only 3 indicators to track female representation, where leading companies had 6.

The report also highlighted cultural and socioeconomic factors which can influence the role of women in the workplace.

Figure 1: examples of gender diversity measures in each part of the ecosystem
Figure 1. Examples of gender diversity measures in each part of the ecosystem


The lack of progress in gender diversity within European companies is concerning. Although women now hold 10 percent of executive committee roles, given the current growth rates, this will still remain less than 20 percent by 2022.

The report highlights that implementing gender diversity initiatives may not be enough to make a breakthrough in progress, and suggests that companies should:

  1. Have visible commitment from senior management by making a compelling business case for gender diversity and leading by example
  2. Have a detailed understanding of women’s representation at every level by setting targets through diagnostic tools or offering incentives
  3. Tackle the mindsets that halt women’s progress by ensuring that the company culture is consistent with gender diversity aims
  4. Target initiatives at stress points relevant for each company. For example, at entry level, focus on altering the perception of women entering the workforce. Within middle management, consider and plan for a woman’s entire career, avoiding positive discrimination through ‘women-only’ solutions. For senior management, incorporate gender diversity into the planning process and look towards reducing barriers to help more women through the pipeline.

To read the full article, see Devillar, S., Graven, W., Lawson, E., Paradise, R., & Sancier-Sultan, S. (2012) “Women Matter 2012: Making the breakthrough” McKinsey & Company.


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