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Alexis Krivkovich, partner at Mckinsey and Company and co-leader of McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace” research, shares key takeaways and insights from the 2016 study conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey.  Alexis shares insights based on her own experience as a woman in senior leadership and the unique challenges that women face in the workforce.  She also discusses the role that men can play in fostering a more inclusive workplace environment and how to move beyond good intentions and improve diversity outcomes.

In this episode, you’ll discover:

  • What surprised Alexis most in her experience with senior leadership (3:45)
  • A struggle that many companies face when it comes to diversity (8:10)
  • Key findings from the Women in the Workplace 2016 study (10:10)
  • The gap in perception between women and men when it comes to diversity (11:38)
  • A challenge that women face when advocating for a promotion (16:31)
  • How women can get the feedback that they need to advance their career (21:55)
  • How women can be more transparent leaders (27:50)
  • How we can de-stigmatize parental leave for men in the US (30:40)
  • How to get companies excited about hiring diverse candidates (40:20)
  • How to overcome the resistance to focusing on diversity in the hiring process (41:21)
  • The roles that women and men can play in increasing diversity and inclusion  (43:20)
  • An important step that all employees can take to create an inclusive environment (45:00)
  • How our choices about whom we connect with can be transformative (47:40)


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Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown.

Today’s guest is Alexis Krivkovich. Alexis is a partner in McKinsey’s financial services practice, and leads McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office. She advises financial institutions, leads the firm’s banking organization practice in the Americas, and co-leads McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace research initiative in partnership with LeanIn.org.

Alexis also serves as faculty at McKinsey’s Executive Transitions Masterclass and Change Leaders Forum. She counsels executive teams on improving top team performance in their organizations, and is a graduate of the Stanford School of Business.

Also relevant to our interview today, Alexis is a mom to three daughters.

Alexis, welcome to The Will to Change.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Thanks for having me, Jennifer.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m thrilled to have you. We’re going to talk about your company’s research in a little bit, which you’ve been so intimately involved in, which is groundbreaking. We always like to start The Will to Change conversations with our personal diversity stories.

I know that you have lots of daughters and have a real personal connection to the work that you get to do around gender equality in the workplace. Tell us a little bit about your awakening to feeling very mission driven about the work you do, getting the message out, and having the occasionally tough conversations about equal opportunity for women in the workplace.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Sure. I’d be happy to. It’s very interesting for me to reflect on my own journey, because I will admit I didn’t start out my career thinking much at all about being a woman in the work environment. I thought about being a person, and someone with high ambition.

Honestly, as the product of both my parenting and my schooling through the 1990s, I really felt like I was going to enter a workforce that was already balanced and an equal playing field for women. So my personal awareness, I would say, was actually quite low.

My father’s side of the family is Russian and Polish. I remember when I first told my grandparents that I’d gotten a job after Stanford, my grandfather, who is quite traditional and had grown up in eastern Europe, said to me, “Well, how do you feel about taking a job away from a young man who might need it to support his family?”


ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: What a weird question. I said, “I feel quite good, because I’m going to support myself.”


ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: But at the time, it just struck me as odd. And when I entered the workforce, I graduated from a class in the university that was very balanced across women and men. I entered a first job where my entering class of analysts was very balanced between women and men. And I really felt like when I saw leadership across many companies that was not diverse in terms of gender, that it was really just a matter of time. That if I waited until I got there, I would look around and I would see all of my colleagues who were there, reflective of the colleagues who had started with me.

I was really surprised to get to senior leadership and discover that that wasn’t the case. The complexion of senior leadership still looked a lot more like what we’d seen 20 years before than what I had envisioned 20 years into the future.

That was probably the first moment for me where I realized that the pace of change that we’re achieving is just not fast enough, and that we’re going to have to think about it differently.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s a perfect segue about the studies that McKinsey has undertaken and the sheer number of companies that you have included in that work, endeavoring to really catalog the problem —or the opportunity, as we say in the business world.

Tell us a little bit about what you set out to study, if you had to describe, why is it a problem that women are being left out of leadership positions and the cost to employers and organizations at a high level? How do you describe that in a way that balances not making people feel defensive about the very conversation? I find a mixture of denial and anger and confusion, but also genuine curiosity —literally not knowing the facts when I tell people about the data that’s out there. Tell us a little bit about the studies.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Sure. The research that we have underway now is a multi-year partnership with Sheryl Sandberg and LeanIn.org to create, across McKinsey and Lean In, the definitive benchmark of gender diversity and the data underpinning our progress on diversity in corporate America.

We’re now entering into our third year in 2017. It’s based on a body of research where we work closely with companies across the spectrum of industries to understand three things: What is our actual pipeline of women and men of color, what does it look like, and what is the progression over time in a longitudinal way? Help us get a snapshot how that breaks down by industry and sector and roles.

The second thing is understanding the policies and programs that companies are putting in place that they’re trying to make advancements on that they feel are working for them or not working in terms of improving that complexion of talent.

The third, which I think is always the most exciting and powerful, is asking employees themselves, women and men across all levels of organizations, “What are you perceiving and experiencing in your own work environment in terms of how well companies are delivering on that promise of what they’re trying to achieve in terms of an equal playing field, eliminating unconscious bias, creating equal opportunity for all?”

The data that we based this on, in our 2016 Women in the Workplace report had 132 companies, very much what you’d see in terms of a cross section of industry and size of companies in the U.S. Over 37,000 employees shared with us their personal experiences and perception about the work environment.

For 2017, we hope to have over 200 companies and twice as many employees participating. It’s a very exciting body of research.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad that you all are putting it out there, and making it so tangible and practical. Also, there’s an accountability. The link between what we say we’re about as a company and the lived experience of employees in those companies, which is often where a gap exists.


JENNIFER BROWN: This gets to the big difference between setting bold, best-practice policies, versus the culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, right? How do we close that gap between our aspirations and what’s concretely baked into our company practices? Sometimes the feedback comes back and it’s not very positive around how that’s perceived.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Right. That’s a struggle for so many companies today. We have evolved, I’d say, even in the past five years as we’ve been engaged in a lot of this research, from a world where a lot of companies were saying diversity wasn’t a top priority, or one amongst many other priorities, to diversity and inclusion being viewed as a top priority for the institution. Over 75 percent of companies that we survey say it makes their short list of priorities at a company-wide level.

That’s really important. As I talk with different organizations about “Why diversity?” there are multiple answers to that question. Of course there’s the reason, simply, it’s the equitable and right thing to do. But there are lots of things that are the right thing to do that don’t get the resources or attention they need to accelerate and make progress.

In addition, on an issue like diversity and inclusion, there’s a real performance view which says that if I want to attract the top talent in a competitive environment like we face today, and if I want to get the most out of my people, including the best outcomes, the best decision making, the most innovative thinking, then I will need to have great diversity in my workforce at all levels. I firmly believe that. And I believe that the companies that are going to make the fastest progress on this issue are the ones that also believe that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. That gap is an interesting one, and we’ll keep exploring all that when we talk about employees still feeling like they need to distance themselves from some of the more stigmatized behaviors or identities in the workplace. Until we create a sense of safety for people to bring their full selves to work, utilize policies and available benefits, we’re not going to have this shift. It strikes me as always a top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out dynamic in terms of what happens at the day-to-day manager level of companies.

I’d love to dig into the key findings from the research, which is available for free download. We’ll let our listenership know where that exact link is.

Alexis, what are the key findings that you think generate the biggest gasps from the audience when you present this information? They could be things that maybe we thought we’d fixed or solved for in the past, maybe things that affect women dramatically different than men, or diverse talent differently than others. What are some of those shocking findings that you want people to pay attention to when they read the research?

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: The big punchline of the research from our first year was that it will take over 100 years for women to reach parity in the C suite relative to men. That progress has, effectively, if not stalled entirely, slowed dramatically from what I think most people’s expectations were over the past decade or more.

When I share that fact, most women in audiences are not surprised to hear it, but many men are. And I think that’s because there’s a gap today in the perception of a lot of people about the degree to which we’ve already solved this issue. I think most women who are still participating, progressing, competing in the workforce at senior levels feel a set of headwinds that, in many cases, men don’t experience. Because they don’t experience it, men don’t have the same awareness than they still exist.

That’s a lot of what our research uncovered in terms of what’s behind that number. And what are the reasons why we’re still seeing these headwinds that have really slowed down progress so dramatically?

There are a couple of points I would highlight. The first one is what this isn’t about. There’s a general perception that attrition is a strong driver of why you see fewer women at the top. Effectively, they self-select out or drop out of the workforce at much higher levels. We found, actually, that company-level attrition is not a driver. In fact, women are more loyal over time to their company as they progress to more senior levels than men are.

This is really shocking to a lot of people because there’s a sense of, “Well, if women aren’t at the top, it’s because they’re opting out.” I do think that when women exit companies, they are more likely to exit to take on more flexible roles or more into positions that they can control, like individual entrepreneurship, becoming their own personal operator. Men are more likely to job hop, which we do see in external hiring. Companies at senior levels hire in more men than women and actually exacerbate their problems with diversity.

The fact is, most companies are not losing their women at high rates. What they’re not doing is they’re not progressing them quickly. And that lack of progression starts right at the beginning.

One of the other things we’ve found that’s quite shocking to a number of people is that the first promotion matters a lot in most companies. In fact, across all the companies we looked at, on average, for every 100 women who makes that first promotion into management, 130 men do. Right out of the gate, you already have a situation where women are falling behind.

I think the reason this is particularly surprising, and was surprising to me, is we’re talking about early in career. In many cases, these populations are highly represented by younger folks, including millennials. For many women and men, this is at a point in their life where they’re pre-family start. It’s not yet the dynamic of having children. And you don’t yet have the complexity of senior-level politics where networks and leadership and sponsorship are playing a significant role in those promotions. Despite all those things not being present, the fact that you still see such a big discrepancy I think is particularly alarming.

The third thing which the data shows is that there are a number of ways in which women describe experiences that feel materially different than men do. In small, but important ways, women cite situations where they feel that they’re not able to participate in meetings as frequently, that they don’t receive the challenging assignments, they don’t feel like their contributions are valued equally, and they’re not turned to for input on important decisions.

That describes a pattern that when we interview women, they reinforce. That sense that there is somehow a way in which they’re not as completely embedded in the flow of the informal currency that really matters to build a strong position over time towards leadership in many companies.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. That all sounds very familiar from the questions that I’m asked when I speak on this topic, and the level of frustration. Feeling like if I challenge a behavior, a decision that’s made, or not being included, if I push into that, maybe I am going to be penalized or unfairly stigmatized. This is the whole “squeaky wheel” problem, becoming synonymous with your gender as opposed to the quality of your work. It’s a very slippery slope. If we advocate to ourselves, we are judged in a really different way. And, yet, if we don’t challenge it, what are some of the other ways around that to challenge the behaviors that we see happening around us? At some point, we can’t always be the one who’s raising the challenges.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: I think that’s absolutely right. An important insight we came to in our research last year was the realization that, increasingly, women are taking the advice that they’re getting broadly to advocate for themselves. They’re lobbying for promotions, they’re asking for compensation on levels that are on par, or even a bit higher than men. What’s interesting is we see a level of blowback associated with those behaviors that we don’t see at the same level for me.

When women ask for a promotion, the are far more likely than men to then find in their performance reviews that they’re described as bossy, aggressive, intimidating —negative language that crops up elsewhere as a response to the self-advocacy.

This puts women in a particular bind because the data on the pipeline says you are going to have to champion yourself or you’re not going to make the progress. In fact, today you’re not making those early leaps at the same levels. But as soon as you do, because it’s inconsistent with our belief about how women and men should play into gender roles, we see a penalty come back around. I think that’s a particular challenge for women that we need to solve.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. Yes. Let’s focus on what we as women can shift in ourselves. Some of the interesting feedback about Lean In was it very much focused most of its energy on how we can show up differently to shift that dynamic. The counter of that, of course, is that the organization needs to rise to meet us, right? There needs to be an openness and a commitment to women showing up differently before they show up differently. Otherwise, it becomes a very risky proposition, as you’re describing.

In your study, do you think there are things women can play differently and need to play differently and shift in their mindset and their self-belief about how to navigate these waters? The rules that may or may not have been built by them, but by which we all need to be successful. What is your viewpoint on that balanced with how much the organization around them and their colleagues need to shift?

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Yes. That’s such a great question and a challenge for women. I’ve found for myself that there are three things I really focus on at the individual level that I think can be quite powerful.

The first one is being thoughtful in how you construct your network as a woman. There is a lot of emphasis placed on networking. Many companies think about ways to connect their women. There’s a very important piece of that around creating connection across women. By definition, as you progress into more senior levels, there will be fewer women in most companies holding those roles. Creating a sense of community and connection with women is really important.

But one thing we see in our research is that women are far more likely to have a network that’s all women than men are, right? And men are far more likely to have an all-male network than women are. This makes sense when you think about people tend to feel most comfortable with people like themselves where they have commonality, things to talk about and share.

What’s important for women is that over time, as you progress into senior leadership, if you don’t broaden that network from thinking of that as a network of women to a network of leaders, a network of sponsors, a network of supporters, in whatever form they may come in your company, you end up unintentionally narrowing yourself in terms of the people who can play that role for you in a way that can be potentially quite limiting.

The encouragement I have for women individually is: Think about the people in your corner. Think about how you make sure you get the breadth of support you need over time. Really focus on creating a network of leadership that’s there to support you as you progress. Make sure it’s balanced to represent the breadth of what your company has to offer because it will give you the maximum access to opportunity. For women, that’s a really important step to take.

We find that while women and men ask for feedback at the same level, women receive critical feedback less often than men do —the type of feedback that’s focused on how to improve your performance over time.

That’s really important for growth, right? In order to improve, you need to know not only the things you’re doing great, but you need sharp clarity on the areas you need to improve in order to achieve the next level.

The piece women can own on that is when you have performance dialogues or when you have interaction with your manager, make sure you ask the questions that get you the feedback that you need. Recognize that if you don’t prompt it, you may not receive the full breadth of insight that would really be helpful to you. Be prepared to ask the question: What’s the one thing I could do to improve my skill set and take my performance to the next level? Don’t just say, “How did I do?” You might get back, “You did great.” Right?

What we hear is that, on the margin, both male and female managers are inclined to soft-pedal tough feedback for women. When we do that, we miss the opportunity to give you the skills you need to grow. That’s the second piece that’s really important for women to keep in mind, and something you can really own and control.

My last personal piece of advice, thinking back on myself starting out in a career, looking forward to the leadership level, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to model my behavior on what I saw. My pattern recognition said, “What’s at the top today is what must be the definition of success to get there.” In order for us to believe there’s a world with more diversity in senior levels, with have to believe there’s a world with more diverse leadership styles. I encourage women to not constrain yourselves to say, “If I don’t see it today, that must mean that it can’t exist in terms of the type of leader that’s the future of the company.” Actually, you should say, “I need to help shape what should be there in the future.”

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I love that. We always say, “She’s got to see it to be it.” With a lack of role models of non-traditional leaders, we make the assumption and it becomes a belief that nobody that looks like me is able to be successful to that degree. I believe the connections that bind us to companies start to break and the trust starts to break at that moment. It continues to fracture, a death by a thousand cuts over time. And then you become one of the only people that look like you who gets promoted and you become the only one at the table. You will look around and realize you might have succeeded and beaten the odds, but the isolation of it is very exhausting. That’s where we’ve got to make sure we’re monitoring the pipeline very carefully, and walking the talk when it comes to the kinds of policies that are welcoming for all kinds of talent and all kinds of families.

Another passion of mine is recognizing that all of this knowledge we’re talking about building into our organizations is good for men and male leaders as well. Work doesn’t work for a lot of people in the current iteration.

Would you share a little bit about how men are also shifting their expectations of their roles, how balance is defined, and how we are making this bigger than just a conversation about women’s development, but for all leaders, and fundamentally redefining what that will look like in the future?

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Absolutely. One of the very important pieces of this puzzle is the fact we hear a number of men also saying that the current construct of leadership in many companies, work expectations, that they struggle with that as well. We find nearly a third of men say they don’t aspire to the top roles because they don’t think they embody the typical style of a top executive. They feel the definition of leadership is too narrow to embody them.

We also find that not only do women say that the single biggest reason they don’t reach for the top jobs is stress and pressure and balancing family commitments, but men say that as well. So this isn’t an issue that is just confined to women. I firmly believe that when we solve some of these questions on leadership diversity and expanding profiles of what strong leadership looks like, and also work/life balance and how to make that work in a modern era, we will be solving this for women and men equally.

It should be an even greater call to action for companies to emphasize this, and many are, because they’ve realized that this is really how you win the talent game of the future for everybody —to create an environment where there’s a sense of inclusion, and a sense that diversity and perspective is valued and drives better outcomes. Also, you must recognize that people are looking for a whole life, which includes but is not just limited to a thriving career.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I loved your story about how you challenged yourself to not gloss over the need to have time to go to a parent-teacher conference. I think a lot of people camouflage and hide the fact that they’re balancing so much behind the scenes by saying, “I’m not available, I have another meeting.” At some point, you made a choice to say, “I’m going to show up and talk about and be transparent about the myriad of priorities in my life and how I am balancing it all.”

As leaders, another way we can do a disservice to those who are watching us, is acting as if everything is easy and somehow we have it magically figured out, when that’s very far from the truth. The pressure to make it all look easy is really strong. The concept of revealing how the balance is actually done on a mechanical level is part of leadership showing up transparently, and also redefining what that leadership looks like. Am I representing that story correctly?

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: That’s absolutely right. One of the great benefits of working in professional services is the ability to create flexibility in your schedule. I certainly feel like it’s one of the powerful things about being part of an institution like McKinsey. That ability to have control over my destiny has kept me here over time.

I realized a few years ago that we have a lot of asymmetric information when we work together in a workplace, that we can either exacerbate or reduce, depending on how we choose to talk about it and the degree of transparency we bring.

What I mean by that is there are many situations where I spend time with teams where they see me show up where I’ve taken a redeye or I’ve stayed late or I’ve done something extraordinary to spend the extra time that’s needed to be with them and support clients the way I want and need to. What they don’t see is where I take back some of that balance in my own schedule in ways that work for me and work for my family. They’re not with me two days later when I volunteer at the school or drop my kids off or show up to make milkshakes as part of a class project. By definition, they’re not in the room and they’re not looking at my calendar and seeing that there are all sorts of things I do to create balance that allow me to play the role I need to play as a leader, but also the role I need and want to play in my family as a mom.

It’s important that we start sharing some of those stories and bring some of that transparency into the workplace. As vulnerable as it can make us feel, if we can’t share the ways that we make it work, people will believe that it’s not possible.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. What do you think would enable more men to take full advantage of the increasing amount of parental leave that is given by companies? When we look at Europe, of course, they get a crazy amount of time off. In fact, I believe they get penalized if they don’t take the time off, particularly fathers. But in the U.S., we can barely take enough vacation time. We’re a country that doesn’t even utilize what we’re given. We have that whole characteristic about our culture.

What would destigmatize parental leave, for example, for men? I’m so curious. I do have my theories, but it’s a different way to tackle that problem of the stigmatized identity associated with people who take leave and all the stereotypes which have hurt women, of course, and continue to. What would make the difference for men? That will create a big shift that we haven’t really seen yet.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: What’s quite interesting is that we see such a gap between what men and women do when it comes to parental leave. I feel like that’s a clear signal of the disconnect between where we have a policy on paper intended to achieve a certain outcome and we have a reality behind that of how that plays out day to day. There’s a disconnect between the two.

When you have a policy saying you have access to parental leave, and let’s say a generous policy for men to take parental leave on par to women, but you don’t see your employees taking advantage of it. That is a sign that there’s something about that policy that isn’t working for you in practice the way you think. Many women don’t really feel like they have a choice. If you have a child or you adopt a child, for a period of time you’re the primary caregiver at home, you really need that time for recovery, for caretaking, right? Many women take advantage of it. But then they experience what they feel like is a penalty on the back end when they try to reintegrate into the workforce.

I think many men see that and they worry about that same challenge. That’s one of the reasons you see the uptake on those programs to be much lower than you would expect if everybody was taking advantage of them in equal form.

The reflection that I think is important for companies is, where do I think that disconnect is? And what are some of the steps I can take to minimize it? There are some that start at the individual level. Are we role-modeling the behavior with our leaders in visible ways? When our female leaders take parental leave, do they take their full parental leave? When our male leaders have the opportunity for parental leave, are they taking it and demonstrating that it’s okay? That’s one piece of it.

Another piece of it is to really understand how do these programs play out in practice? When we say “reintegrate” what does that mean? Does it work on paper, but if I asked 20 people in my company about their experiences, would they describe that was much more challenging than that?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I think it’s true. We’ve got to see more leaders doing it, and many will follow in their footsteps. This is one of those things that especially senior leaders need to be cognizant of the optics of the choices that they make. It’s the same as working 80-hour weeks and the tone that it sets, or the expectation of being on e-mail at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and always keeping an eye on it. That’s always set from the top. The power of leaders’ behavior, whether or not it’s stated, is going to be interpreted as the norm. With a subtle shift, those among us who are cognizant of your research and have taken a hard look at their own gender expectations can start to push back against those expectations of their gender to make different choices and challenge each other to make different choices.

I’m always fascinated and recommendation that men who are gender equality champions have a huge role to play in terms of the conversations they can have with their male peers and with their male colleagues. That conversation can be honest and different. There will be a character to it that is unique, it’s a communication between two men, and it can go a long way in terms of making people revisit their assumptions, behaviors, and the impact of their behaviors. It will be a safe place, too, because the shaming factor is not as intense when it’s a private conversation from one man to another. There are a lot fewer feelings generated around it, I find. It can be more straightforward. Certainly, if it’s a senior man speaking to a junior man, there are still political nuances to it. If those conversations were to happen with no woman involved, if we could have more of those, I believe we would see more behavior change. I wonder how many of then are going on behind the scenes that we’re not really privy to.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Well, an important piece in what you just said is the element of having men at the table. In a lot of companies, the place much of this started was convening women to talk about women’s needs. That’s important, certainly, to get perspective from the source. It’s also important to create a community for women, like we talked about. To solve this, you really need everyone at the table. First of all, I firmly believe you’re solving for everyone. As you create greater diversity, you will create an environment where everyone wins and feels more included and more able to bring their full self to work.

Secondly, in the current pipeline and complexion of most companies, the majority of senior leadership positions are still held by men, which means the majority of levers to drive impact and accelerate change reside with men. You will never get the progress you want unless you have men fully at the table and fully in the conversation. As you noted, that requires a degree of trust, openness, and a willingness to have conversations where not everyone’s going to get it right the first time.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. It’s been interesting to watch everything that’s happened with Uber over the last couple of weeks even. Comments that were made for which there were swift penalties related to something that started with a blog post. We are seeing an accelerated cycle around consequences for not understanding this, not taking it on board, not monitoring your environment for behavior and other cultural factors that are negatively impacting certain members of your workforce.

Any leader that’s not paying attention to all that and isn’t aware of the gaps that we’ve been talking about today, the research is all over the place. Sometimes it really surprises me when I talk to senior leaders who aren’t aware of the basics that are covered in your report. I will absolutely urge everyone, again, to read McKinsey’s work, Women in the Workplace. Make sure you’ve got some of these stats at your fingertips. Far beyond being fun cocktail chatter, like that only 6 percent of the Fortune 500 have female CEOs, beyond the shock and awe, let’s get together and talk about what we can do, particularly as men, to shift this. We’re starting to see more of that, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Alexis, I wanted to ask you what your opinion is on the pushback, on the resistance that sometimes you find. I know I get the question when we talking about diverse candidate slates, for example, or I’m talking about building that muscle to know who’s not at the table, who’s not included in key decisions, who’s not being mentored, et cetera.

I get the question, “Are you telling me that we need to hire the diverse candidate or are you suggesting that we have quotas around our hiring and promotion practices?” This can get into a tricky situation and conversation, of course. Maybe the question is, “Are you telling me, all things being equal, I need to make different hiring decisions and promotion decisions and really prioritize the non-traditional candidate or the diverse candidate?” I would love to hear your perspective. How do you tackle that question? How do you reframe it, and how do you understand it? I think people will be on the defense and say, “I believe in a meritocracy, I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, I hire the best person for the job. I don’t want to be forced to hire somebody that I don’t feel comfortable with.” There’s a lot of this narrative, whether it gets said or not. It is in the air.

Backed up by all your data and knowledge, what do you say to that and how do you reframe the conversation so that people end up excited about the opportunity to hire and promote diverse candidates at every juncture?

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Right. There is an important and very real reflex reaction to questions around diversity, hiring and promotion, that get at the heart of what you described as a meritocracy, and a concern that we will actually violate those principles in this work.

One of the most common frames is, “Well, I don’t want to swing too far in the other direction and suddenly award opportunity to people who wouldn’t otherwise receive it simply in order to feed a diversity objective.”

The reframe that’s important there, in my mind, is one that says, this is not about disproportionately awarding people opportunity where they haven’t earned it, it’s actually about eliminating the unintended biases that are built into the system because of how it was constructed, because of some of our preexisting stereotypes that we’re not even aware of, because of some of these compounding factors that we’ve been talking about. It’s about unwinding some of that which is leading us to unintentionally bias the results that we’re getting.

Today, we have an uneven playing field in how things play out. Right? We have individuals who are not appropriately achieving the opportunities, the promotions, the access that they should for reasons we don’t intend. And the goal here is to change that so that all companies get to take advantage of the best that their talent has to offer, that every time they get the opportunity to take the best, right, and most deserving candidate and give them the next shot.

With get that right, and we create, I believe, a more motivated workforce, but also a better selection process for our talent that gets not only more diversity at the top, but a closer link between the actions and performance today and the outcomes that we want to reward and see in the future.

That’s the important reframe that can be quite powerful in companies. It’s to say, look, today things are happening and there’s noise in the system that you don’t actually intend and don’t want. It doesn’t yield the best result for you because of that. Let’s change that dynamic so you actually get the best flow of talent to the top.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right. Lastly, related to that, what does your data show about the answer to the question, “Do you know what to do to play your part in gender diversity?”


JENNIFER BROWN: It was amazing, and not surprising, that the answer is both women and men don’t really know what to do to play their part. We might have increased awareness, and your study obviously does that to a really effective degree, but there’s always the question, “What do I do now?” I get that and I say, “How much time do you have?” I wrote my book about so many things you can do, large and small. But how do we play our part once we’re awakened to the issues? We’re passionate, well-intended people, but it’s really not enough. I always say we’ve got to be more proactive. Diversity doesn’t just happen. It’s built brick by brick by courageous actions, bold behaviors, people who are willing to take risks on behalf of others —all of those things.

What do you say to folks who say, “Okay, I’m awake, I’m passionate, I want to put my skin in the game.” What are some things that I can do? Where can I get started?” Let’s hear a couple of the high-yield activities that folks can undertake.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Right. The data point that you’re referencing that is quite striking is that only 51 percent of managers say they know what to do to help improve gender diversity. When only half of your workforce at the pivotal role of leadership deep in the organization knows what to do, the thought that you’re going to see widespread change at a significant, accelerated pace is very unlikely. Right?

The real question on the table is: How do we arm people better to take action? One notable example of that is when we ask people, “Do your managers challenge biased language when they see it occur?” Three-quarters of people say no. They don’t see that happen.

One step everyone can take, managerial position or not, is what you said about playing a personal role and being an advocate for the right behavior in the workplace. Have the courage to challenge and pause when you see something happening that doesn’t look or feel right.

What’s important to make it productive is to recognize the vast majority of people are not intending to create a negative or non-inclusive environment. In many cases, they’re not actually aware of how their behavior is doing it. The whole premise of unconscious bias is it is unconscious, therefore, there is a very low —if not zero —level of awareness around it.

I think we need to start with that premise and recognition that most companies, most leaders, most individuals are not starting out to create an imbalanced environment. It’s what we’re inheriting as a result of a lot of pattern buildup over time. And when we see things that don’t look right, first we need to have the courage to challenge it, but secondly, we need to be prepared to have an open dialogue about it, one that is not accusatory, not emotionally charged, but really focused on the constructive, one which asks, “How do we build from here forward?” That’s one thing everyone can do.

The second thing everyone can do is think about the ways you can role model and be part of the future pattern, not the past. For men, that may be taking advantage of parental leave policies and being vocal about the fact that you’re doing it, why you’re doing it, in order to create more acceptance for it.

For women, it may be playing a part in helping articulate for the company where policies are working and where they’re not, where integration back from leave is proving particularly hard, or where you don’t feel the support mechanisms are in place. It can be a really important piece. Bringing some of that transparency to how you do make it work.

For everyone, really pushing yourself to expand your circle of connection points. As humans, we will always be wired towards people who look and seem like us. There’s something in the familiar that’s very welcoming, encouraging, protective. How do we all find ways to make connections to people who seem different? As soon as we start doing that, we expand everybody’s network and awareness, and we create a much broader degree of familiarity.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. We’ve learned so much from you, Alexis. This is beautiful, and a perfect ending to something called The Will to Change, the title of this podcast. It’s about the awakening of purpose in us to take on some of these issues that are harmful, holding our organizations back, and holding ourselves and our families back from reaching our full potential. May you continue to ignite the spirit of change in your audiences with your research.

For those of you who want to download the report, WomenintheWorkplace.com. You’ll see the latest research. Alexis, thank you so much for your voice and for leading the way on this conversation. I appreciate it.

ALEXIS KRIVKOVICH: Jennifer, it’s been such a pleasure, thank you.


McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2016 Report