McKinsey’s gender research has been pivotal in driving the thinking of firms looking to increase diversity at the most senior levels.  The recently published 2013 survey places the emphasis very much on firms addressing existing mindsets and culture and particularly on challenging the (probably unconscious) views of their men on women’s leadership.

The global survey of male and female managers establishes that women appear to understand (in a way that earlier research suggested they may not) what is required of them to get promoted to the highest level.  The women surveyed:

  • *expressed an ambition to reach the top that is directly comparable to the ambition expressed by their male colleagues;
  • *stated that they are no less willing than those male colleagues to make sacrifices to get there; and
  • *believe that they are promoting themselves and communicating their ambitions to their bosses.

Taking one concrete example: 48% of men and 45% of women have proactively asked for promotion.  Both anecdotal evidence and previously published research would suggest that that 45% figure does indeed represent real progress.  A gap remains, but it is closing.  Thinking about how the women may have conveyed those messages, it would perhaps be interesting to survey their bosses; did the boss get the clear message that the woman in question wanted promotion?  However, whatever the answer may be to that question, the central point is that the women know what they need to do.

One of the key findings of the research is that mid and senior level women are significantly less confident that they will succeed (get promoted to the top) than their male colleagues (69% against 83%).

What leads to this lack of confidence?  It’s instructive to compare the responses of the cohort of women confident that they will succeed with those of the less confident female cohort.  The less confident cohort have significantly less faith in their firm’s culture than their more confident female colleagues.  For example, 45% of the confident cohort agree that women are as likely as men to make top management in their firm.  Far fewer (12%) of their colleagues from the less confident cohort agree with this assessment.   The two groups of women differ far less on what might be termed individual issues – like the question above ‘have you asked for a promotion?’- than they do in their assessment of the culture of their firm.

Focussing on these cultural factors, some of the work that many firms have been doing in this area certainly seems to have paid off: three quarters of men now understand that firms with greater gender diversity at the top will perform better.  But the second clear message from the research is that firms still have a good way to go in persuading their men that it is more difficult for women to reach senior positions.  Many men simply just don’t accept this: when asked whether equally skilled/qualified women experience much more difficulty [than men] reaching top management positions, almost a quarter (24%) of men disagree – in effect refuting what might be thought to be clear from the statistical evidence – that promotion is more difficult  for women.  Only one in 25 women share this view.

Those campaigning for greater diversity might point with satisfaction to the fact that over two thirds (68%) of men do now agree that it is much more difficult for women to progress. But the men don’t appear to be firmly convinced: only 19% of men (compared with 63% of women) strongly agree.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that to disagree with the statement is to promote male supremacy, 98% of men and 94% of women agree that women can lead firms as effectively as men.  But in what might be the most important finding of the research, men seem to be simply far less convinced of the leadership effectiveness of their female colleagues. 84% of women strongly agree with the statement – are entirely convinced that women lead as effectively as men.  Only 43% of men are similarly entirely convinced.  Such feelings are going to have a disproportionate impact on senior promotion decisions for so long as those decisions are taken by a predominantly male group.

The final finding confirms what anyone who has introduced measures designed to support women’s progress knows: that firms have to have in mind that men in particular will be sensitive to the perception of unfairness if too many such measures are put in place. 54% of men (and 66% of men who don’t agree that women have more difficulty in getting promoted) are likely to perceive such unfairness.

And McKinsey’s conclusions?  Nothing new there:  it’s all about having strong commitment from the CEO and top management and a range of approaches aimed at challenging the prevailing corporate culture.