Recruiting and retaining women has long been seen as one of the biggest issues for the consulting industry. In 2016 She’s Back, in collaboration with a number of consulting firms and the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), launched an initiative to examine why women leave management consulting. Their findings included recommendations on how to address this trend (available as a report for a fee but summarised here), but is there any indication so far that things are changing?
Women in consulting – the reality
Over the previous 20 years, the rate of recruitment of women into the management consultancy industry has increased by 191% according to Consultancy.uk. Despite this, it claims the proportion of women employed in consultancy has fallen from 52.5% in 1998 to 47% at the end of 2018. It is certainly beyond doubt there remain far too few women in senior positions in consulting firms. At the same time as advising clients to equalise their gender representation and reduce the gender pay gap, the UK consulting industry itself has struggled to improve in this respect.
Prism Executive Recruitment’s own experience in seeking to fill senior appointments requiring consulting staff, whether in consulting firms or client-side, is that overwhelmingly candidates, whether applicants to advertisements or prospective search approaches are male. This remains true when roles emphasise work-life balance and family-friendly policies and the inescapable conclusion is that women are simply not in the job market.
Therefore to seek to hire senior female consultants and have “balanced shortlists” is to close the stable door too late. The obvious and better alternative is not to lose the talent from the workplace in the first place.
What is the catalyst for women leaving consulting firms?
Although graduate intake to consulting firms is very roughly equal male: female, this balance does not apply at all levels.
The critical point occurs for women in their late 20s and early 30s, who may have reached the Manager or Senior Manager level. At this stage, there is frequently a conflict between the considerable investment required to further their career, and to home life. The need to juggle client assignments, manage staff, win new business and network within the firm and with clients often occurs at the same point that women require time out for the family. The apparent incompatibility of consultancy and family life means that frequently the conclusion reached is that a management consultancy job is unsustainable. The direct result is the subsequent under-representation at the most senior levels.
While women typically take a major role in family management and child-rearing and many actively wish to do so, it is clear that for many, the assumption is also that there is in practice no choice. So to ensure all women in consulting (and indeed all employees) have the flexibility to achieve an acceptable work-life balance – whatever that might be- consulting firms need to understand why women leave and consider what changes to their organisation’s culture might reduce this. This will have the added benefit that the retention of ALL employees improves.
Men are of course also keen on work-life balance and a firm who prioritises this will succeed in improving the retention of all employees. Indeed men are increasingly taking shared responsibility, albeit this is happening slowly, and want to take an active role in family management and childcare.
While it is tempting to make an assumption that senior female role models are required men can be role models for women too and indeed this is desirable. To have senior men seen to be prioritising family can make it possible for both sexes to realise it’s ‘OK’ rather than just something the women employees do. Everyone can feel comfortable having conversations about home life and work/life balance without worrying if it is a career-limiting mark against them.
What are the main obstacles?
Research undertaken by Source Global Research and UNIDA Diversity Consulting and sponsored by EY presented valuable feedback from the industry. It identified practical steps to be taken to ensure the conflicts that can face women at a critical stage of their careers can be addressed.
As part of a ten-point framework the findings identified two main factors which the female Managers and Senior Managers interviewed required to remain in consulting:
1. More predictability around travel and workload
2. Greater access to flexible working – and acceptance of this by clients
On the face of it, many firms have policies in place around both these, but the interviewees believe they are only available in theory rather than practice.
A framework for change
In order to address these two main issues within consulting, the research identified other factors which need to be in place
3. Continuity of teams to build trust in flexible arrangements
4. Career progression via varied paths, some involving part-time working
5. Clear promotion criteria, not exclusively revenue dependent
6. Support and training around maternity leave
7. Role models and mentoring
8. Recruitment of experienced hires and seeking out female talent
9. Encourage and incentivise partners to change attitudes by working towards diversity targets
10. Empower employees to take advantage of flexible working without it being detrimental to career progression
In order to effect change and ensure more predictability and greater flexibility of working, the report suggested that the factors must be addressed as a whole rather than cherry-picked. All are interdependent.
Their report “Women In Consulting: How To Hold Onto Talent In the ‘Pinched Middle” is essential reading and focuses on the practical steps consulting firms can take today to help women through this tricky stage of their career and life.
Although retention of women remains an issue, it is encouraging to see a number of consultancy firms in the Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2019 and indeed 2018. All of these firms have put gender equality and the wider inclusion agenda as a key part of their business strategy. McKinsey & Company has been committed to inclusion and equality for women for over a decade and the other Big Four firms in professional services are making significant progress in their ability to retain women in their organisations. See here for an article and interview with two female ex-Bain and ex-McKinsey employees about their very positive experiences.
It should be emphasised that many of these steps do not require deep pockets or extended HR departments to be put in place. It is therefore well within the capability of smaller firms. There is considerable evidence that more diversity at senior levels improves business performance.
Also, it is clear that many clients strongly favour mixed teams and that asking clients to be more flexible is in some cases pushing at an open door. Smaller firms should not fear that this is mere tokenism by the big firms that can afford it. Indeed there is a case that in practice smaller firms should be better placed to lead with the flexibility and innovative thinking that is required: that is after all one of their primary selling points to prospective staff and clients.
It is certainly true that if an employee, male or female, has established themselves in an environment that works for them, not only will they be content in their work but also very disinclined to consider a move to another consulting firm because of the risk that the work/life balance will be poorer.
Consulting is an industry whose greatest asset is its people and retaining only half of its experienced talent pool is a significant opportunity cost to the sector. The firms who can address the challenges faced by women in consulting will benefit from all the advantages of a more inclusive and diverse workforce including better performance and productivity. It is only by changing the culture and promoting positive behaviours from the top that employers will see real change.