Eman Al-Hillawi on the road to a more diverse consulting industry

08 March 2022 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read
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On International Women’s Day, Eman Al-Hillawi – the CEO and co-founder of business change consultancy Entec Si – reflects on her journey to the top of the consulting industry and outlines how leaders in the sector can work towards a more diverse workplace.

Throughout my consulting career, gender bias has been one challenge that I sadly have – and still do – experience, and it’s easy to see how it can stand in the way of women rising to the top of the industry.

While this problem has no quick fix, a focus on building supportive female communities, having confidence in being yourself and your equal place at the top table, as well as creating an inclusive environment where colleagues can leverage the benefits of flexible working, is key to accelerating the careers of rising female consulting stars.

Eman Al-Hillawi, Chief Executive Officer, Entec Si

The need to do more to level the playing field between men and women in many industry sectors is clear. Last year, only eight of the CEOs at the top 100 UK companies were female, with women accounting for around 38 per cent of FTSE 100 Boards. This disparity is particularly true in the world of consultancy, which has historically been male dominated.

Gender bias, whether deliberate or unconscious, can make it more difficult for women to be taken seriously. The individuals affected may feel that they need to always outperform male colleagues in order to be perceived as their equal. Damaging tropes that men are less likely to have to contend with, such as ambitious women being viewed as ‘bossy’, can also lead women downplaying their successes and they may be less likely to push themselves out of their comfort zone as a result.

At the same time, many women are juggling careers alongside caring for children or dealing with female specific health issues, such as the menopause.

Achieving real equality

It goes without saying that promoting real equality within consultancy is a complex issue, which is unlikely to be resolved overnight. However, there are a number of things that can be done by men and women alike, to create a fairer, more diverse industry, for the benefit of everyone.

A vital element of this is for women to become better at supporting each other and creating alliances. In an industry where it can be more challenging for women to rise to the top, women need to share their experiences and work collaboratively. They should aim to build a strong network of female advocates and provide up-and-coming female consultants with access to experienced female mentors.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in a number of schemes focused on providing valuable support and advice to women in business, including the Santander Women Business Leaders’ Mentoring Programme, something I feel would have been helpful to me when I was starting off in my career.

As well as the valuable knowledge and insights that women can gain from such initiatives, it’s also vital for us to be able to openly share experiences of gender bias and other challenges and receive advice on how to overcome it. This should come from those who have experienced it firsthand.

For example, after launching change consultancy, Entec Si, I initially experienced a lot of frustration during meetings with prospective clients, who would sometimes overlook me and address my male co-founder, instead. At that time, I wish I’d had someone to take me under their wing and discuss these kinds of issues when I was starting out in my consultancy career, giving advice on how to tackle them at the time rather than feeling immense frustration.

In order to overcome ‘imposter syndrome’ – a common problem experienced by women in business – we also need to work at building confidence. The best way to do this is often for women to work hard at pushing their limits and stepping outside their comfort zone, while also learning to believe in themselves and their professional voice. They should also not be afraid to play to their strengths.

For example, at Entec Si, we adopt a ‘blended teams’ approach, focused on working seamlessly with clients to help them achieve their goals. Strong communication, empathy and relationship building skills – areas that many women excel in – could help many firms to improve their service offering in this way.

Across many areas of the business landscape, the new flexible working environment has transformed people’s work-life balance and it’s essential that the industry builds on these changes for the benefit of women’s careers. Whereas many consultancy firms used to be constrained by geography, this is no longer the case and is now far easier for women and men to weave family responsibilities, such as the school run or caring responsibilities, into their working day.

By rethinking traditional approaches to productivity and focusing on outputs, rather than hours at our laptops, we can maintain a high standard of consultancy work and get more out of our day, whilst having a healthy work-life balance.

In order to break biases in the consultancy world, we must also be honest about the very real challenges posed by medical issues, such as the menopause. By educating all areas of the industry about the challenges involved in health-related issues, we can build a strong culture of empathy and solidarity and help others to achieve success.

To build the strong platform that female consultants need to thrive, promoting a culture of collaboration where we play on capabilities and experience, is vital. By encouraging women to share their experiences, learn from strong female mentors and leverage the benefits of the industry’s new-found flexibility, we can achieve a more diverse and rewarding industry for consultants and clients alike.