As part of her job as senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer at McKinsey & Company, Lareina Yee ’95 heads the Women in the Workplace initiative. Now in its sixth year, Women in the Workplace is the largest study on the state of women in corporate America, gathering and analyzing data from 317 companies and 40,000 employees.

On November 19, Yee joined President Sian Leah Beilock in conversation for an exclusive online event, presented by Beyond Barnard, to discuss the staggering findings of the 2020 report, such as: One in four women are considering leaving the workforce entirely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event — the final installment of the 2020 Insights: Powered by Barnard series geared toward students and alumnae — provided an in-depth look at how the pandemic has already impacted workplace diversity and what companies can do to reverse the damage.

Zoom screenshot of President Beilock and Lareina Yee during their event
A screenshot of Beilock and Yee during the Zoom event.

Yee majored in history and political science at Barnard and went on to receive a master’s degree at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) as part of the Accelerated 4+1 Pathways program. She was a Javits fellow, as well as a Henry Luce scholar, and worked with the Foreign Relations Committee in the United States Senate before joining McKinsey in 2000.

Read some of Yee’s insights below:

On her path from Barnard to the U.S. Senate to McKinsey:

Lareina Yee: “My dream job [while at Barnard] was to write policy papers in the U.S. Senate. I applied for tons of internships through the help of Barnard when I was in college and was so excited to go to SIPA. And then life threw a curveball. What you think you may want to do and what you may pursue really passionately may not be the thing that you spend 20 years doing. I really loved working in the Senate because it offered the ability to think, and gave me the experience of being inside a system in a way that helped the system to improve. When I joined McKinsey, I found a common thread there. I also realized that it is fun to solve problems. After one year, I thought, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do it for another year.’ There’s something about letting your curiosity, letting all your natural talents just take you where you go. If you had asked me when I graduated from Barnard, I would not have expected to spend my time in business.”

On how she became chief diversity and inclusion officer at McKinsey:

“It wasn’t obvious. My day job is to spend time with technology clients. That work and my diversity work are like pickles and peanut butter — they don’t actually make a sandwich together. Maybe it has something to do with being at Barnard, but I had a sponsor, and I had just become a partner, and he said, ‘I challenge you, Lareina, to think of something beyond what you’re doing to have an impact that you care about.’ It was a very aspirational, very vague statement, but I thought about it. What I couldn’t get out of my mind was that in every meeting, every time I was at an executive table, I was the only person of color. I was the only woman, or maybe there was one other woman there. I remember thinking, ‘This is not what it felt like or what it looked like or what my expectations were when I graduated from Barnard.’ Then I asked myself, ‘Well, what can I do about it?’”

On the lessons of the Women in the Workplace report:

“The most important statistic is that one in four women in corporate America are thinking about stepping back or stepping out. This is a shocking number for a whole bunch of reasons. One is that never in the last six years — as we’ve done this research, or really in the last decade, when I’ve been looking at gender in the corporate sector — have we seen that attrition really differs between men and women. Early on, we busted the myth that women left the workforce at higher rates than men. Our findings clearly allowed us to say, ‘Women aren’t leaving corporate America, you’re just not promoting them, or supporting them, or creating an environment for them to succeed,’ and sort of switching accountability back to the companies was a really important frame of the discussion.

“This is different. What we measured in many different ways is that women take on a higher double-shift load [of household work in addition to professional responsibilities] than men. In the course of the pandemic, that number of hours women spend on household work has risen, and the load is not equally shared between men and women.

“The other piece of what we found is that women far more than men felt that they were going to be professionally penalized for the [double shift] of their extra household responsibilities. That’s insane in a world where those are not controllable responsibilities. I’m not quite sure why men don’t feel that, but that’s not a healthy signal in the workplace.”

On how permanent work from home might interact with these findings:

“I think this is a story that hasn’t played out yet. On the one hand, what we know in all previous years is that the lack of flexibility was the number-one cited barrier to women’s success at work. What’s great about COVID is it has accelerated our ability to use a remote video format. It has accelerated our ability to rethink what work looks like. The challenge right now is we’re sleeping in the office, and it’s extreme. So the question is, when we don’t have the conditions of a pandemic, when we have a more balanced set of support services, schools, when we are not in such a heightened environment, will we snap back to how we worked before? Or will we actually innovate around how we work?

“I think companies are thinking about diversifying talent. If you were to say, ‘I live in San Francisco, but I’m not so tethered to hiring talent in San Francisco,’ that may open up the ability to find amazing women engineers, Black engineers, Latinx engineers. There is some promise to that.”

On data-driven DEI practices that work and those that don’t:

“We do know that formalized sponsorship programs with data behind them work, and really the crux of sponsorship is opportunity creation. That’s particularly important for Barnard women because for you it’s not a question of being smart or being capable — it’s a question of having the opportunity to prove it and to show it? 

“Diversity of slates is [also] a really important practice. You want the final decision to be meritocratic ... The challenge is that qualified women aren’t getting on the shortlist. So I’m a huge advocate of seeing more diverse slates, and then it should go where it goes. 

“One thing that’s less helpful is what I call hit-and-run training. If you take 45 minutes of unconscious bias training, you will not get rid of all your biases. Sometimes it oversimplifies the real work in changing behavior.”

On her networking tips:

“Your greatest networks come from the work you do with others. So let’s say you’re doing an internship or you’re taking a class with a professor or you’re in your first job —be proactive and reach out to those that you’re working with, and keep in touch with those people over time. That’s part of what really effective networkers do. Also, it’s perfectly okay to be vulnerable with someone who is one of your mentors, and it’s perfectly okay to ask questions. You don’t need to come in all buttoned up with the answers. Most senior people know that they are here to help you. Have the courage to take the first step and initiate, and really good leaders will also initiate it with you.”

*Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Watch the full conversation between Yee and Beilock below: