How Empathy and Competence Promote a Diverse Leadership Culture

Achieving gender balance in management teams requires focusing on the role that the leadership environment plays in shaping ambitions, opportunities, and experience.

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Meaningful diversity and inclusion actions are now seen as mandatory for new generations entering the workforce.1 But the effectiveness of current measures in the finance sector falls short of these expectations. The 2021 Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey and found that women in North America remain dramatically underrepresented in financial services.2 In particular, women are still promoted at lower rates than men at every step of the leadership ladder, and these differences are exacerbated for Black, Asian, and Latina women.

Well-intentioned efforts focusing on recruitment, quotas, and compliance are not enough to achieve the next stage in gender equality. Prevailing workplace narratives that emphasize the constraints that separate men and women also hold back progress. If we endlessly highlight that women have had lower levels of labor market attachment, women will continue to be viewed as riskier hires for leadership roles. Meaningful change requires a culture shift — a dedicated effort to equalize opportunities so that all employees can thrive, regardless of gender.

Our experience working with organizations in the financial services sector sheds light on the importance of focusing on workplace culture. In September 2020, we conducted a study with 1,700 professionals across the financial sector to understand current attitudes and drivers that contribute to the lack of a pipeline to leadership positions for women. The survey results revealed that perceived workplace fairness is important for all employees, regardless of gender; it predicts satisfaction and lower turnover intentions. Yet there were large differences in how employees viewed their experiences and ambitions based on whether they worked in an environment with a relatively high or low share of men.

To explore how businesses can create environments that equalize opportunities for women instead of hindering productivity and creating dissatisfaction, we followed up the initial survey with 79 in-depth interviews with women across functions with high and low shares of men. They were asked to describe headwinds and tailwinds in their careers. Those in high-share roles were income generators, such as traders, investment bankers, and asset managers. Those in low-share roles worked in either compliance or communications. In analyzing their responses, 10 clear themes emerged that were then matched to actions businesses can take.



1.J. Miller, “For Younger Job Seekers, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace Aren’t a Preference. They’re a Requirement,” The Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2021,

2.T. Burns, J. Huang, A. Krivkovich, et al., “Women in the Workplace 2021,” McKinsey & Company, Sept. 27, 2021,

3.The Good Finance Framework,” PDF file (London: Women in Banking & Finance, June 2021),

4.M. Seifert, J. Brockner, E.C. Bianchi, et al., “How Workplace Fairness Affects Employee Commitment,” MIT Sloan Management Review 57, no. 2 (winter 2016): 15.

5.Z.B. Cullen and R. Perez-Truglia, “The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap,” working paper 26530, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 2019.

6.W.A. Gentry, T.J. Weber, and G. Sadri, “Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership,” white paper, Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, North Carolina, 2016.

7.C. Feser, F. Mayol, and R. Srinivasan, “Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters,” McKinsey Quarterly, Jan. 1, 2015,

8.M.A. Hogg and D. J. Terry, “Social Identity and Self-Categorization Processes in Organizational Contexts,” The Academy of Management Review 25, no. 1 (January 2000): 121-140.

9.Z. Nathoo, “‘Failing Up’: Why Some Climb the Ladder Despite Mediocrity,” BBC, March 3, 2021,

10.Teleworking in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Trends and Prospects,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Sept. 21, 2021,; and J.M. Barrero, N. Bloom, and S.J. Davis, “Why Working From Home Will Stick,” working paper 28731, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 2021.

11.S. Haynes, “How Leena Nair, Unilever’s Head of HR, Sees the Future of Work in a Post-Pandemic World,” Time, May 23, 2021,

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