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Still looking for room at the top: Ten years of research on women in the workplace

McKinsey & Company



Article Report/Paper

Workplace Gender Equality

Gender equality Workplace Gender Equality Women in the workplace Women in work Workplace diversity

Still looking for room at the top: Ten years of research on women in the workplace

Still looking for room at the top: Ten years of research on women in the workplace

The article ‘Still looking for room at the top: Ten years of research on women in the workplace’ from McKinsey provides an overview of 10 years of research on women in the workplace, drawing on more than 20 published reports on workplace gender around the world.

The research examines both the impact of having more women in senior-management positions on business performance and the potential for greater female participation in the workforce to unlock growth in the global economy. It presents a strong business case for gender equality while also presenting the many barriers that have been preventing progress as well as ways to move forward in accelerating change.

The article identifies an ‘uncomfortable truth’. While progress has occurred in the intervening years, it remains too slow. In 2017, on average, women accounted for 17 percent of corporate-board members and 12 percent of executive-committee members in the top 50 listed G-20 companies. However, the research also finds that many people are content with the status quo. According to one study, conducted with LeanIn.Org and one of the largest of its kind, almost 50 percent of men think that it is sufficient when just one in ten senior leaders in their company is a woman. One-third of women agree.


  • A global survey of 279 companies conducted in 2010 found that those with the greatest proportion of women on their executive committees earned a return on equity 47 percent higher than did those with no female executive members. However, a correlation does not prove causation, and some academics have disputed what they regard as the intuitive appeal of a link between diversity and performance. Nevertheless, a growing body of research by McKinsey continues to strengthen that link.
  • The 2018 Delivering through diversity study of more than 1,000 companies in 12 countries found a correlation between diversity at the executive level and not just profitability but also value creation. Those companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 27 percent more likely to outperform their national industry average in terms of economic profit—a measure of a company’s ability to create value exceeding its capital cost—than were bottom-quartile companies. There was also a penalty for lack of diversity more broadly. Companies in the bottom quartile on both gender and ethnic diversity were least likely to record higher profits than the national industry average.
  • One study tracked ten indicators of women’s position relative to men in society, such as education, health, safety, political voice, and financial and digital inclusion, as well as five indicators of equality in the world of work. Broadly speaking, the better their standing in society, the better their relative situation in the workplace. There is almost no country in the world where equality in the workplace outstrips that of women in society.
  • This fact highlights the power governments have to instigate change, be it by introducing laws that protect women’s rights, ensuring that girls have a good education, or offering financial support in the form of paid maternity leave, publicly funded childcare, or tax incentives to encourage both partners in a family to work. Much of McKinsey’s work, however, has sought to understand the specific barriers to female leadership within business and hence the actions corporations can take to help lower them.
  • The research also found that female representation is not just a problem at the top. It remains an issue at each stage of the corporate pipeline, with the odds stacked particularly highly against Asian, black, and Latina women, as well as other women of colour.


  • The case for change
    • Correlations with company performance
    • Women lead in different ways than men
    • Global economic potential
  • The barriers to change
    • Not just a glass ceiling
    • Lack of promotion
    • Domestic burden
    • Unconscious biases
  • Accelerating change
    • Tracking and accountability
    • Leadership from the top
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