In recent years, the management consulting industry has seen a slow, but steady improvement in its female diversity, with the number of women in partner ranks and senior positions on the rise. Yet according to Fiona Czerniawska, founder of Source Information Services and Sandra Guzman, Director of nbi, an international human capital consultancy, the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to female leadership. In this article they reflect on why a few women isn’t enough.
I had a road-to-Damascus like moment recently, talking to some senior women partners in a Big Four firm. We collectively realised that while the proportion of women partners remained low, individual women partners tended to have a higher than average percentage of women working for them. Women, it seems, attract other women.
And it’s a point that comes through again in recent research from Source Information Services in collaboration with nbi, a human capital consulting firm. Together we interviewed almost 40 senior people in leading consulting firms around the world. One partner in Australia described how her early career had involved several occasions in which she’d had to choose between a relationship and her job (she chose the latter). Eventually married and with young children, she found herself working for a senior female partner alongside other women who were also juggling their home and business lives. “The partner didn’t have the best reputation internally, so it was her who reached out to us, rather than us choosing to work with her. But she created in my experience a uniquely supportive environment in which we all helped each other.”
No one was made to feel bad when they had a childcare issue or domestic crisis; everyone worked together. Another interview made a similar point: “If a senior woman is working part time, actually that is something that is desperately relevant for making women feel supported. Flexi-working is desperately relevant for women, and I can do that, I can help with advice and I’m a role model.”
More women at the top mean more women lower down, because women who feel part of a supportive team are less likely to leave when they start juggling work and families. Crucially, they’re also working alongside people who recognise that work doesn’t come first: “I don’t have to sell my soul,” was the way one woman put it.
That’s important because our research has found that nine out of ten clients of consulting firms would prefer to see more women in traditionally male dominated teams. Two thirds say that, if they had to choose between two consulting teams and all other factors were equal, they’d often or always hire the team that had more women. Consulting teams which have a greater proportion of women are seen by clients to be capable of delivering better quality solutions, relevant not only to the client’s own organisation but to those organisations’ end customers. Women, in other words, are perceived to help consulting teams to think more laterally and to consider the longer-term. They’re also seen to be faster at developing relationships, more gifted coaches, generally more efficient and better at gaining trust.
Yet of the people we spoke to in our latest research only one in ten thought that there was a sufficient critical mass of women at the top of their organisation – certainly not enough to pull through the women beneath them, to keep women who might otherwise be tempted to leave (and two thirds of our interviewees say that consulting continues to be a difficult profession for women to work in). “At a recent partner conference, the support staff assumed I was a secretary, because almost all the partners were men,” said one woman partner.
More positively, many of our interviews felt that there’s less pressure on the women who do make it to the top to follow male blueprints of behaviour. “When I first started as a consultant, the very small number of women in senior positions were ball-breakers,” said one. “There are [now] many more models of how people can be effective and influential without having someone who is talking all the time or is super central within discussions.”
With the proportion of graduates entering the consulting industry now more evenly balanced between the genders, the next challenge is to ensure that the proportion of senior women goes up substantially. Solving that problem will go, our research suggests, a long way to ensuring that firms can retain their high-calibre female consultants at all levels – and keep their clients happy as well.