Women, COVID and Consulting

To what extent might the COVID-19 pandemic be a catalyst for progress or otherwise in gender diversity within the management consultancy sector?

It is widely accepted that greater diversity within an organisation is beneficial.

However, attracting and retaining women in management consulting roles is a continuing challenge for consultancy firms. There have been initiatives such as that between the MCA and She’s Back, whose aim is to support women in the workplace and enable experienced women to return to work after a career break. However, the number of women in consulting firms has fallen in percentage terms over the last 20 years. They are particularly underrepresented in senior positions.

We have explored this topic in previous blogs and discussed the research carried out by Source Global in 2017 which identified two main factors which senior women required to remain in consulting:

  1. More predictability around travel and workload
  2. Greater access to flexible working and acceptance of this by clients

Because of COVID, almost overnight we saw our workplaces change dramatically as remote and flexible work arrangements have become widespread. Many employees have desired increased flexibility to work when, where, and how it suits them. Yet for many, this has not always been possible until now.

Consultancy firms have been reluctant in the past to embrace flexible working, perhaps because they feared it would not be welcomed by their clients. However, enforced changes in working practices during the pandemic have helped to dispel these reservations. It has been demonstrated that a more adaptable approach to working is possible.

A poll Prism conducted in July asked:

“if there is more remote working in the future than pre-pandemic, will gender diversity at senior levels in management consultancy increase?

Sixty-three per cent of respondents said yes.

Clearly, there is far more to increasing gender diversity than flexible working, but as the Source Global research report showed, it is an important component.

Will working from home (WFH) be a step towards greater gender diversity in consulting firms?

There are many potential benefits in the workplace, for women and more generally:

  • The enforced period of working from home at the start of the pandemic and the subsequent guidance and restrictions have resulted in greater predictability. Video calls can be more time-efficient and contact with clients and colleagues is facilitated by technology. Short notice client meetings which in the past might have involved huge personal disruption can be accommodated with ease.
  • Juggling care for children and/or elderly dependents is forcing many in the workforce to work more flexibly. Employees at all levels in an organisation are in a similar boat, so there is shared acknowledgement of the benefits and challenges.
  • The 30% Club is a global campaign led by Chairs and CEOs taking action to increase gender diversity at board and senior management levels. Previously Co-Chair and now PwC Partner, Brenda Trenowden CBE, believes mass homeworking has prompted greater awareness of every employee’s domestic priorities. This can only be a good thing.
  • A new normal of working from home may result in the opening of the jobs market to those who have struggled previously for other reasons such as having different physical capabilities.  Allowing people to work from home has ‘made way’ for a more diverse workforce generally.
  • The evolution and success of remote working from home demonstrates to both clients and consulting firms that flexible working, and being outcome-focused, is effective.

All of this should, in theory, have a positive impact on diversity and inclusion in the long term. Catalyst  (a global non-profit whose aim is to help organisations to build workplaces that work for women) has long argued that Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs) are the foundation of inclusive work culture and a central tool to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Despite the benefits, WFH is not a level playing field

However several studies of working parents’ lives during Covid-19 have shown that a disproportionate share of the burden of unpaid work in the home is still falling on women. Research by scientists from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich during March and April 2020 revealed that working women in the UK undertook more childcare and home-schooling across all wage brackets, compared to men with similar earnings. Although this pattern is occurring regardless of income the impacts are variable and exacerbate existing inequalities. Furthermore, single parents may be particularly unfairly disadvantaged as they carry the full burden of work and domestic responsibilities.

Other industry observers stress that even among full-time high-earning women who have so far maintained their careers while caring for children in the pandemic, many are increasingly concluding that the juggling act is unsustainable. “It’s a trend we’re seeing now, not three months ago,” says Allyson Zimmermann, a Zurich-based executive director at Catalyst  “One [major client] shared that she’s seen senior women leaving because they just can’t do it anymore… I am hearing more women are also going into part-time.”

This problem may be partly resolved now that schools have returned and it is again possible to employ childcare in the home, but the ability of women to successfully manage their career and motherhood will be significantly influenced by their ability or inclination to afford support.

McKinsey’s sixth annual ‘Women In The Workplace 2020’ report, in conjunction with LeanIn.Org was recently published. It is the largest comprehensive study of women in corporate America and this year focuses on how the pandemic has affected women at work, including the unique impact on women of different ethnicities, working mothers, women in senior leadership, and women with disabilities. Although the findings relate to the US, it is possible to extrapolate and see that the same difficulties may well apply elsewhere.

The report shows that as a result of the negative impact of Covid on job security, work-life balance and other pressures, more than one in four women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.

However, for employees who do not have family commitments, will there be a feeling that there is too much flexibility available to those who do?  Care needs to be taken to ensure that support and flexible policies are available to all to avoid resentment.

The challenges of working from home

Lack of boundaries

The highly challenging circumstances of the Covid-19 crisis mean that many employees are having to adapt to new ways of doing their jobs. Both men and women feel like they are “always-on” now that the boundaries between work and home have evaporated. The greatest test has been the ability to disconnect from work. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already face in the workplace. In particular, working mothers often work a double shift: a full day of work, followed by childcare and still shouldering a greater proportion of domestic tasks.

For a while, the support that made this even possible for women i.e. school and childcare were compromised and there remains the threat that these might be disrupted in future.

Lack of boundaries is a driver for increased stress levels and it is perhaps not surprising that a survey by Qualtrix showed that 44% of newly remote workers felt their mental health had been affected since the start of the pandemic.

It is difficult to strip out the stress related to working from home per se from overall anxiety caused by the pandemic. However, it is clear that employers who prioritise their workers’ mental health will gain an edge in the retention of both women and men in their organisation.

Training and development

It is also becoming increasingly clear that WFH is not universally welcomed: many miss the office environment and people at the earlier stages of their careers are deprived of many of the informal learning experiences that the office can provide, not to mention networking, whether that be social or professional related. Source Global Research who provide insights into the management consulting sector suggests that in consulting firms, the virtual delivery models developed in response to the pandemic may result in a compromise to the training and development pathways of junior consultants.

‘Allyship’ and network

McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report stresses that an important component in supporting and retaining women in consultancy is allyship. This is a term more commonly used in the US, an ally being defined in this context as “any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole”.

It is much more difficult to act as an advocate or a mentor for women (or indeed any other colleague) in a remote working environment. It is also more difficult to counter bias when working away from the office. The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues should also not be underestimated. PwC’s US Remote Work Survey published in June 2020 revealed that an important reason employees say they go into the office is to collaborate with other team members (50%). Difficulty collaborating was also identified as a key obstacle to productivity. To what extent the lack of opportunity to work alongside colleagues disproportionally disadvantages women, remains to be seen.

Furthermore, it is important that women ensure they are as good as men at making themselves and their achievements visible to leaders and decision-makers.

This is particularly relevant in relation to sales which is essential to career success for experienced management consultants. This is difficult to achieve without face to face contact and a good network, both difficult while WFH.

Returning to work after a career break

Larger consultancies such as the Big 4 and the major strategy firms run programmes to encourage women back into the workplace following career breaks. Although this might be made more difficult by remote onboarding and it can be hard for remote workers to adjust to the company’s culture, this should be relatively easy to overcome with planning and video conferencing. Organisations such as She Back has a Facebook group which provides support for returners and women on career breaks.

However, this support is not widely available and is difficult for smaller firms to offer. This makes returning after a career break more difficult for employees who do not have a large firm CV or who want to work for a smaller organisation.

Productivity

While on paper there are undoubted opportunities for productivity gains to be made with flexible working, an EY survey found that over 80% of respondents felt less productive WFH.

It is certainly the case that working from home without adequate childcare if required, especially when schools were closed or without holiday provision,  is very difficult and a burden that can disproportionately affect women.

There is inevitably conflicting data on this point and perhaps it is simply too early to gauge the impact: for example, a PwC report gives a much more ringing endorsement of the benefits.

This, therefore, demonstrates that it is very much dependent on personal circumstances and working styles.

Successfully managing flexible working

The majority of employees see the benefit of some degree of flexible working post-pandemic.  According to the McKinsey report, 70 per cent of employers think this shift in the way we work will allow them to increase diversity in their hiring. Furthermore, flexible working will open opportunities for existing employees, particularly mothers, caregivers, and people with disabilities. These employees will be able to take on or remain in jobs that previously would have been impossible or have required them to relocate, travel extensively, or manage a long commute.

However for flexible working to benefit gender diversity long term, firms should look for ways to re-establish clear work-life boundaries. For many, this may require setting new work norms: for example, establishing set hours for meetings, policies for responding to emails outside core business hours, and improving communication about work hours and availability within teams. Companies could also encourage employees to set their own boundaries and take full advantage of flexible work options and support them in this. This support should be demonstrated by senior management applying flexibility to their own working practices to lead from the front and set the tone for other staff.

Greater gender diversity post-pandemic?

The important question is this: will flexible working emerge as a widespread new normal when the current crisis is over, or will management consultancy firms return to pre Covid policies? To what extent will this help with the two main factors, predictability and flexibility, which deter women from continuing their career in consultancy?

The hope is that organisations will finally shift to embedding flexibility as a cultural norm for all. Such a move could not only be tremendously beneficial for women’s advancement but also be a positive move to a better work-life balance for everyone in an industry which is notorious for long hours and significant travel. Overall, management consultancy would be a much more attractive sector in which to work, especially for those in the childcare and family brackets.

Forward-thinking management consultancy firms can capitalise on this.

While large consultancies may have the resources to devote to this challenge, smaller and medium-sized firms, who often feel disadvantaged by their size when recruiting, can seize the opportunity to level the playing field and attract top talent because of their greater agility, the flexibility of working and often superior employee satisfaction.

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