Why do women leave consulting careers?

Everyone knows the answer to that, don’t they? It’s actually rather more complicated, not least because the desire for work/life balance and lack of enthusiasm for Monday to Friday away from home is increasingly becoming gender-neutral.

Group of women in management consulting

The recruitment, retention and promotion of women remains one of the biggest issues for management consulting firms. Although an increasing number of women are joining the consulting industry, in many cases they are not staying for long enough to ensure significant representation at senior levels. The percentage of female consultants at the senior level remains low.

In an effort to identify why this may be the case, five consulting firms joined forces to launch an initiative to promote gender diversity in the management consulting profession. Accenture, IBM, KPMG, PA Consulting and PwC are currently working in collaboration with the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) and She’s Back.

A report was published “The road less travelled; why women’s path to partnership in consulting firms is still not straight” by NBI Consulting and Source. It was based on interviews with women at partner/board level from the world’s largest consulting firms. The report concluded that despite the many wide-ranging initiatives designed to resolve the problem of women leaving consulting jobs, the results continue to be disappointing.

Apart from the fact that organisations face losing a talented and highly skilled portion of their workforce if women cannot be retained in management consultancy careers, there is a strong business case for offering a diverse consulting team.

Why clients want to see more women in management consulting teams

In a separate survey, Source canvassed 100 senior executives for their views on the role women play in the consulting teams. Nine out of ten of them wanted to see teams that had more of a gender balance. Firms were overwhelmingly keen to have female business consultants working on projects. The reasons they gave included the following:

  • Teams that have a greater proportion of women deliver better quality solutions, to both the client and the organisations’ end customers.
  • Women help consulting teams to think more laterally and to consider the longer term.
  • Women were thought to be faster at developing relationships and were more effective coaches
  • Women perceived as more thoughtful and more prepared to take time, more reflective and more engaged
  • More than 80% of clients think that a project run by a woman is likely to keep to time and budget
  • Female project managers were felt to be better at stakeholder management than their male counterparts.

Women are also seen to excel in terms of communication. 75% of clients said that they tend to be more upfront with what needs to be done and why. 58% said they’re more straightforward than men and are more prepared to spend ‘quality’ time with their clients and teams.

How can management consultancy firms encourage women to stay in consulting jobs?

In preparing their report, nbi Consulting interviewed 35 senior women and men in consulting firms in the US, UK, Europe and Australia. Most of those interviewed were equity partners. The purpose of the report was to look at the factors which helped women in consulting careers progress through the ranks to become partners and senior partners.

The report concluded that there were potentially 6 things consulting firms can do:

  1. Invest in identifying women candidates and understanding their individual career ambitions. In this way a position may be “customised” to suit that individual’s needs.
  2. Develop an understanding of the factors which prevent key female talent from feeling they can pursue a career within the firm. What are the challenges of life as a female consultant? Know the concerns and issues they may have before they resign.
  3. Consider a sponsorship programme for women consultants. Evidence suggests that being heard by a senior person can make the difference for women consultants between staying and leaving.
  4. Identify individuals in a firm who would make good sponsors. Actively manage and support a mentoring programme within the firm. Encourage the formation of a women’s consulting network.
  5. Empower the project managers who are reporting to partners to pay more attention to accommodating flexibility of working within their team. Support them in this juggling act.
  6. Actively promote flexible work practices. Also encourage the return of female consultants. Project-based work can lend itself to working from different locations at non-standard times aided by technology.

Reasons for leaving consulting jobs are not unique to women

This survey sought to identify the factors which helped women to progress. In doing so it also highlights some of the reasons why women leave. One obvious conclusion might be that family commitments mean women are less willing to commit to the 24/7 work pattern that is often required in consulting jobs. It would be easy to label this as a gender issue, but that may be simplistic.

The Millennial generation has a very different view of what is an acceptable work-life balance. A PwC report concluded that Millennials are unconvinced that the excessive work demands, which older workers have hitherto taken for granted, are worth the sacrifices to their personal life. These men and women now want more flexibility in working hours. And there is evidence to suggest that this attitude has increasing support from all generations. Employees now want a flexible work schedule and are willing to give up pay and delay promotions in order to get it.

Indeed it is increasingly the case that men too are unwilling to sacrifice family life at the altar of career progression and client demands.

A change in culture within firms

There is of course the potential problem that if some sections of the consulting workforce are not willing to be mobile and work long hours, often at short notice, then others have to take on more than their share of the burden. However in practice, sometimes informally, accommodation and compromises can be made on all sides. It’s therefore no longer as much of a problem. A less macho style of culture and leadership and greater flexibility from clients has also contributed.

The results of the She’s Back online survey is of relevance to all consulting firms. Management consultancies have a “huge opportunity” to attract back women who have left the industry. But they must fully embrace more innovative and flexible ways of working. In an effort to meet the challenge of ensuring as much as possible is done to support and encourage women to remain in or return to consulting jobs, an additional benefit may be that the workplace could be a better environment for all.

The impact of the pandemic

Since these initiatives were started and some of the results featured there has been the global pandemic. There have also been a number of well-publicised social media-led campaigns relating to women in the workforce and DE&I more generally. Of these, the most high profile was “Me Too” (albeit that initiative was started in 2006).

It is perhaps too early to make a call on the impact: after all careers don’t happen overnight.

WFH and hybrid working

In management consultancy the effect on the “mobility” and “work-life balance” aspects has been dramatic. While long hours and remaining reactive to client demands, often at short notice, are still a feature this is less obvious than the significant increase in work flexibility. With the great majority of consulting firms there is no longer the default expectation that employees must be prepared to work away at client site 3 or 4 nights a week. Or to be in the office when not working at client site. The norm is hybrid or “blended” working. Of course exactly what this means differs! But in many cases it is clear that there might be NO expectation of overnight stays at client sites. Now much client work is being undertaken remotely, or by day trips. Visits to the employing firm’s office might be one or two days a week….or a month.

It would be naïve to suggest that this will revolutionise the ability of women to remain in consulting careers. There is evidence that for many WFH has meant longer hours and “always on”. Meanwhile, many of the conflicts and stresses especially around family life remain.

It is still not clear whether these changes are long term. However, it is very unlikely that the management consultancy profession will return to the model that applied, with few changes, for the 20 years before Covid hit.

Useful resource:

Inside Knowledge: How Women Can Thrive in Professional Service Firms” by Alison Temperley. It “provides practical guidance for women working in professional service firms who aspire to achieve their full potential in what have traditionally been male working environments. It explores what women can do to achieve careers in professional service firms commensurate with their knowledge, skills, experience and talent”


Often family commitments mean women are less able to commit to the long hours and travel often required in consulting jobs and it is increasingly the case that men too are unwilling to sacrifice family life for career progression and client demands.
Try and eliminate factors which may prevent women doing the job and their career progression. Actively promote flexible work practices. Explain this to your clients: you will find them very receptive to steps to increase diversity

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