Women in Professional Services – 20 years on

6 min read

TwitterLinkedInFacebookEmailCopy LinkPrint

By Harriet Johnson, Barrister and Openside Tutor

For many, in 2020, the march towards true equality for women is almost taken for granted. The positive impact of gender diversity¹ is well documented, and the increased awareness within firms of the barriers faced by women in recent years promises to benefit both women and their organisations alike.

But with the cultural shift borne out of #MeToo leading to revelations about hitherto unspoken workplace dynamics, and recent figures showing that globally only around 9% of senior consulting leaders are women², it’s clear that the fight for women in professional services is far from over.

To mark International Women’s Day 2020, we spoke to some of Openside’s tutors about their experiences, advice, and hopes for the future.

How do you think things have changed for women in professional services since you started your career?

Debbie Dudley has noticed positive changes since she started out in the profession. She says, “I have awful memories of having a sick baby, needing to be at work, sneaking out to phone home for updates and knowing I couldn’t talk about it for fear of looking like I wasn’t committed.” She notes, “things have definitely improved now: more openness about family needs and demands is now acceptable.”

For Lucy Hirst, the changes for women in professional services in recent years have been “huge but subtle”. “There’s far more understanding and acceptance of flexible working now”, she says. “Working mothers are actively being sought out”.

For Emily Palmer, the cultural shift can be a double-edged sword. “I think that the idea of being a woman in professional services is much more explicitly a “thing” now, which is probably both good and bad. It’s good when it’s used as the basis for support and genuine attempts to understand how to develop a more equal workplace. It’s bad if and when it’s viewed as an issue to be “solved” from day one in your career; I don’t think it’s helpful for anyone to believe that they are at a disadvantage.”

Do you see being a woman as a help or a hindrance in professional services?

It definitely was a hindrance 20 years ago, when you had to be much more competent than men and professional services was a man’s world”, says Debbie. “I think there is still discrimination today, but it has lessened because of the greater numbers of women and because overt discrimination is now politically incorrect”.

Both Lucy and Emily saw advantages to being a woman in professional services. Lucy notes that being a woman “can bring an ability to read the emotional temperature in a way that can facilitate results”.

Emily agrees: “I think you sometimes are perceived as less of a threat … and therefore are trusted and privy to information more quickly; you can push and enquire in a way that may be more difficult for a man because of the implied threat to power.

Debbie adds “I do think that the ethos in professional services has moved towards valuing behaviours which are usually more accessible to women; like the ability to coach and to build good relationships”.

Yet all three women felt that the industry, and society as a whole, had some way to go to better support women.

I think the key problem for many women today comes in when they want to have children” says Debbie. “Balancing children and career with an intense involvement in both requires either a very, very supportive partner / family, or magical, Superwoman powers. Most societies are still not structured to facilitate dual careers”.

Emily also struck a cautionary note, observing that “although I’m loath to talk about traits as being specifically male or female, I do think there are some attributes that are encouraged in girls that can act against us – for example, helping out, saying yes to everyone and being happy in the supporting role is viewed positively when you’re starting out as a consultant, but at a certain point it stops being so. We need to help women (and men) through that shift – while ensuring they maintain the positive parts!

How can professional services firms better support women?

Lucy, Emily and Debbie agree that within the workplace, policies that monitor women’s progress are a vital way in which organisations can proactively support women.

In professional services, being assigned to ‘high quality’ work and challenging assignments are important and access for women to those career-defining challenges needs to be monitored and assured”, says Debbie. Lucy agrees that firms need to think proactively about how to retain and support women, including through “technical coaching and reassurance” at every level. Emily emphasises the importance of normalising the idea of women in powerful positions: “role models, role models, role models”.

In terms of supporting women more holistically, Emily notes that a focus on counteracting traditional gender bias can have a positive impact for everyone. “I think it’d be useful to reframe the typical “family friendly policies” as something for all employees and not just for women.” Debbie agrees: “the implementation of policies which facilitate flexible and part time working without a career penalty is so important”. Lucy cites an example from her own life that made an enormous difference. “I worked for a PE house that let me maintain office hours of 8.00am to 4.30pm and working hours of 7.00pm to 8.30-ish – meaning I could collect my daughter and do bathtime.”

What do you need to be a successful woman in professional services?

A woman in professional services needs “a combination of technical know-how and organisational savvy; a healthy dose of political and emotional intelligence, and an ability to work hard while maintaining a sense of humour”, according to Lucy.

For Emily, the ability “to generate positive, supportive personal relationships” is key, along with a “keenness to learn and the ability to process feedback in a positive way; resilience and the ability to bounce back”.

Debbie says “if I had to choose one characteristic, I think it would be judgment: a sort of intuitive ability to know what to do and say when, or perhaps to act with consideration and thought as to consequence. I think women are often really good at that: we read situations better and may have a better sense of when to push and when to hold back”.

What advice would you give to a woman at the beginning of a career in professional services? 

For Lucy, resilience and tactical thinking are key. “Learn as much as you can” she says, “Work hard. Seek out feedback and coaching. Don’t expect to make an impact straightaway – play a long game”.

For Emily, a crucial opportunity presents itself at the beginning of a career in professional services. “When you are starting out, you have a grace period in which you can ask all the questions you want. Make the most of it: sit down with people at all levels and ask them about their career paths, the obstacles they’ve faced, and what they’ve learned along the way. On projects, don’t be afraid to ask what – and to ask why.” When the ‘grace period’ expires, good mentorship is key for Emily. “Find mentors (men and women) and take them with you from job to job. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and curious with them.”

Debbie: “It is vital to develop a profile and to be known for something. Secondly, pick your battles and don’t become too upset over setbacks. Thirdly, constantly watch for the best work – and if you’re not being allocated it, shout loudly.

And good luck”.


One of the most valuable opportunities available to women in professional services is to benefit from the experience of the those who went before us. Only by doing so can we hope to create the long-awaited cascade of advancement for women. It’s clear from the insight of our tutors that learning from others is as valuable a tool as any; be it through mentorship, coaching, or simply seeking feedback.

It’s also clear that women themselves cannot be solely responsible for creating a more equal workplace. Simple policies like flexible and part-time working, monitoring project allocation, and the re-framing of family-friendly policies as something for all employees, not just women, can make a huge difference. We live in a world that is increasingly focussing on the positives and negatives of gendered expectations for men and women; adjusting workplace culture to match societal norms is the very least we can do. In doing so, we can support fathers and mothers, men and women, and transform professional services into an industry that truly reflects, understands, and serves its clients.

Further reading

You might be interested to read McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2019 article and research with 5 recommendations for how to fix the ‘broken rung’ that prevents women from reaching the top.


¹ www.sourceglobalresearch.com/the-commercial-case-for-gender-diversity-in-professional-services/

² www.sourceglobalresearch.com/just-9-of-the-consulting-leaders-we-interview-are-women/