There’s no one better suited to talk about the importance of diversity and the fight to advance women inside tech companies than McKinsey’s Lareina Yee. As the chief diversity officer and leader of the company’s global technology hardware and services work, it’s almost all she thinks about.
Yee also leads a research project called Women in the Workplace, which releases an annual report, in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and The Wall Street Journal, about the progress of female representation in corporate leadership and corporate careers. This year’s report, released last month, revealed an astonishing statistic: that one in four women were considering downshifting their careers because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Protocol spoke with Yee about the effects of the pandemic on women’s careers, what she looks for when consulting with tech companies on their potential for growth and what she’s most looking forward to in 2021.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The Women in the Workplace report called diverse and historically underrepresented women in corporate leadership “onlys.” In some rooms, I imagine you are also one of those women. Does it feel as unfriendly as it looks sometimes? That doesn’t seem to be changing a whole lot, at least according to the data about these women and their experiences in the report.
For women of color, 45% of the time they experience being an “only.” It is the simultaneous experience of visually being the only person who looks like you, maybe because of the intersection of your gender and race, and feeling extreme isolation in a snap moment, as well as an intense pressure to positively show the stereotypes of your small group. That is the inner dialogue. The other thing is that “onlys” are more likely to face very common microaggressions, like being perceived as more junior than you really are and your credibility questioned.
On a more personal level, I think that when we first started writing about being an “only,” one of the things that I felt was personally helpful, and what I noticed when I talk to women of color in particular, particularly Black women and Latinx women, is the ability to put some data and real research behind something you’ve experienced all your life.
And for me, I would think back to many experiences of being an only, and knowing that there is a reason that’s happening, and that you’re not the only one experiencing it. There’s cold comfort in knowing that you’re part of a trend. I see myself in this really depressing data. And there’s something empowering about that.
On the other side of the pipeline, how do we keep women — and women of color especially — advancing from entry-level positions at tech companies?
For tech companies, I often ask them whether they have a pipe or a funnel. There are some companies that are more pipes, and then there are the vast majority, which look more like funnels. So a funnel starts wide and gets really narrow.
And most tech companies are hand wringing, “Well, we only have 30% women entry. It’s so hard, only 18% of college graduate women are stem degrees and engineers.” Which I completely agree is a real problem to solve. But if you start with 30% women engineers, my question is, are you a funnel? Meaning that you end up with very few women over time. Or are you a pipe? If you’re a pipe, that would mean that you have 25% women in senior roles.
With the women you do have, are you investing in them, not only to stay, but get promoted in your company? There are many jobs available in the technology market right now. Are you a culture and place to work that’s attractive enough that women want to stay? And if you have a funnel, it’s very clear that’s not the case. And then you can explore why and what to do. If you’re a pipe, part of what I like to say is, that’s a point of celebration. You are doing something right.
The report also showed that the pandemic has been especially bad for women’s careers, especially work from home mothers. So many are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workplace. What should companies be doing for them especially?
Even though 77% of men in dual-career households said that they are sharing the workload, only 40% of women in those situations believe it. So what could we do about it? People look for a silver bullet answer. Disappointingly so for everyone, there isn’t one. It’s a systems answer.
So what is the system around working women, and how would you start to change three or four of those factors? One of the things you’ll see is that if companies really want to support working moms, they would actually think about four or five things, turn them all on at once, and actually make it more sustainable. So how would you reevaluate your policies and programs that support working parents? How do we pull in different types of support for child care? Some companies had child care on campus, but now they don’t. And most importantly, I would say, is to take bias out of the review process.
One of the key challenges that we saw before COVID that’s been amplified is that a lot of companies have quite a number of part-time and flexible job opportunities and paths. But the vast majority of women and men don’t take them. And when asked why, 87% of women and men said that they see professional risk, so there’s a stigma attached to taking a flexible program because perhaps people will perceive you as less serious, less driven and less motivated. I think that is one thing that we have to very quickly turn around. So one thing that leaders can do very concretely is to de-risk this perception that their career will be hurt if they actually say they need to use something that a company already offers.
Over the summer, corporate America, including many tech companies, promised new diversity and inclusion initiatives, changes to their hiring practices, pledges in support of movements like Black Lives Matter, etc. In your assessment, did this feel like the beginning of actual change, or did some of this ring hollow for you?
I am an optimistic person. So I do think it is the beginning of a very different ability to have discussions about how race and the corporate workplace come together. So if a company is headquartered in a city with large Black populations, are they standing by? Or are they getting involved in opportunity creation and work opportunities and education opportunities? Are they part of the solution, or are they quiet?
A lot of companies had discussions that you could not have imagined they could have had internally even a couple of years ago. So those are the good things. What will be really important is that if you made a pledge, are you executing on it? It’s really important that people, outside of companies and employees within, hold our leaders accountable for those commitments, and also spend the time helping implement them.
Moving on to what you’re thinking about in tech right now. Tech companies have been the standout success story since the beginning of the pandemic. Do you share this optimism, and do you see the same story continuing into next year?
Over COVID, many of the high-tech companies have continued to post growth, which is a really important and true evergreen metric. Behind that, what I look at is innovation. It will be critically important over the next two years, especially with rockier economic times, that those innovation engines continue to go. There’s also a lot to be figured out so that the unit price for the average consumer is more accessible. And so for me, what has been really important for the tech sector is their ability to show resilience.
It’s also been really good that the tech sector hasn’t over-rotated, which is something you saw across industries in 2008 and 2002. Over-rotation is mass layoffs, for example. People are so much of the asset of the company, especially if you think about software engineers, and so the fact that companies are actually still hiring engineering talent is a really important indicator. Underneath the four or five big names in tech, there’s a whole sector of medium-sized software and enterprise and consumer companies, and companies that are pre-IPO that are continuing to do well. And that’s super important.
What’s the company in your sector that you’re most intrigued by? Perhaps you think it has the most potential, it’s where everyone wants to work, maybe they’re doing something different — what’s raising really exciting questions for you right now?
The ones that catch my attention are ones where there’s a lot of innovation in terms of creating new product categories or new ways to relate, but are also very visibly values-driven. Those are sort of markers that I look for. In a time of stress and pressure economically, leadership counts, and you hear some leaders above and beyond others. One that wouldn’t surprise you that seems to be very much in the public eye right now is Airbnb, and they’re very open about publishing things on Medium and their internal materials are shared externally.
There are many companies that are being incredibly thoughtful right now, both about diversity and inclusion, but also more broadly about the need for humanity at a moment where a lot of people feel a range of things from isolation to stress and pressure to bring about frontline safety. If you just think of the way a lot of these fast-growth tech companies, especially software-oriented ones, worked, it was all of us together in a room, coding until late in the evening. And that’s not possible. So you have to be able to keep that up and actually rewire how you collaborate and how you work as a team.
Who are those values-driven leaders impressing you at smaller companies, and what in particular are you looking for there?
Some of the indicators I look for are things that are maybe more operational, above and beyond the big, obvious pieces. It depends what stage company you’re looking at, but a lot of the companies that are growing 20% to 40% and are less than 1,000 people, they’re growing super fast. And when you’re doing that, you maybe don’t have an experienced chief human resources officer, for example. And so I look for companies with people who have experience in building a people function alongside the software, and embedding it into how you work in a more substantive way.
The companies that are growing really fast and also investing in internal infrastructure and privacy and data security give me more confidence, because it means that the whole foundation of the company is a lot stronger. It’s not just about the brilliance of a particular feature or product or offer.
Read the full interview at the link below!