Why are there so few women at the top of Professional Services Firms?

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By Debbie Dudley, Openside Tutor

Isn’t it disheartening that we still face a situation where women aren’t getting to the top of their respective professions? A recent report indicates that globally only about 9% of senior consulting leaders are female.

The problem is not unique to consulting. Grant Thornton report that the proportion of senior business roles held by women in the UK fell from 21% in 2016 to 19% in 2017. This is slightly better than Germany (18%) and worse than the Netherlands and Greece (20%).The global average of 25% is boosted by countries such as Russia (47%), Indonesia (46%) and Estonia (40%). Developing countries tend to perform much better.

How can it be acceptable for there to still be so few women at the top of professional services firms?

Firms tend to hire approximately equal numbers of male and female graduates, so what goes wrong and what can we do?

There are 2 two main problems:

  1. Women leaving the profession before reaching senior levels or the ‘early exit’
  2. Women being overlooked for promotion or the ’glass ceiling’

The Early Exit

Consulting is demanding due to the disproportionate focus on hours and utilisation. The long hours and deadline driven culture of consulting are very difficult to combine with having a family, causing many women to leave.

In recent articles, we have argued that clients should be charged for value received not time spent. Future success in consulting will require a shift from producing deliverables to partnering with clients.

Research shows that, on average, women are more collaborative and better at lateral thinking, so this shift to co-create with clients to devise creative solutions and forge new paths will tend to feed into their strengths. Experience with clients indicates that the value of a thoughtful, analytical conversation about overcoming challenges in a business or industry resulting in some original thinking or new ideas often far outweighs the value of a report with a high ‘thud factor’. In addition, this approach requires better and more refined interpersonal and relationship skills thus shifting the profile of the successful consultant.

As more millennials make their mark on the workplace with their view that excessive demands at work are not worth the sacrifice to personal life, the old time-focused model will become harder to impose.

As the way time is managed in professional firms is overhauled, more workable options in terms of flexible and part time work need to be made available as well as some consideration given to working cleverly so that all are productive in sensible time frames.

Many women leaving consulting at Manager or Senior Manager level do so saying “I can’t see any way that I can make this work for me.” There are often few female role models at Partner level, no evidence or programmes or sponsors to help ensure that work could coexist with a full personal life.

The Glass Ceiling

Much has been written about stereotypes, conscious and unconscious bias.

As much as we rail against them, we know that they are part of human nature. We are ‘wired’ to react instinctively, to be able to make quick decisions without needing to resort to deep, considered thought before shaping our opinions. The only way we can deal with the problem is to make people aware of the biases and create environments in which biased behaviour is challenged.

These biases will often influence if not determine promotion decisions. It means that it is only the very talented, the most resilient and in consulting, the women with unique skills or specialist knowledge, who get through.

Thus, the barrier is set much higher than for men.

What can be done?

Firstly, a plan to make people aware of their unconscious bias needs to be put in place. Simply providing information makes no difference. As much bias is unconscious, an experience is necessary to personalise the issue and so create behavioural change.

Secondly, a culture where unacceptable behaviour is challenged needs to be encouraged.

A specific programme to sponsor the careers of high potential women can be helpful. Harvard Business Review published research highlighting the fact that women often don’t see themselves as future leaders. By comparing 57 female CEOs to a benchmark group of male CEOs,they report that women lacked self-confidence, were more likely to be humble and less likely to self promote. In their study of 57 female CEOs they found that two thirds didn’t see themselves as future CEOs until someone else told them. Many reported that it was specific recognition from a mentor or a sponsor that sparked long term ambition.

These factors emphasise the need to identify talented women early and provide them with structured support.

Specific facilitated programmes designed to navigate some of the unique demands of a professional services environment are particularly helpful. The programmes need to provide some very specific and focused training in certain areas. For example, anecdotal evidence supports a view that the difficulty women face is not managing client relationships but managing upwards. Whilst many leadership programmes may cover this briefly, more emphasis on this skill would be highly beneficial.

Another important dimension of these programmes involves having a thorough understanding of non-performance related requirements for progression and success.

An important factor is ‘Social Capital’ – defined as “the value created by leveraging knowledge that is embedded within social networks and interrelationships.”[1] Developing high social capital is important for anyone seeking a Partnership but it plays a significant role in overcoming unconscious bias. Understanding bias and being able to deal with it, without taking it personally, helps.

The HBR study referred to above also showed that successful women have high scores in courage, risk-taking, managing ambiguity and resilience. Firms must realise that these are skills that their female staff members can learn, practise and refine through skilled facilitation and training – particularly resilience and managing ambiguity,

In conclusion, there is much to be done. A lot of intellectual capital and capacity is being lost to the professional services. A shake-up is needed in deciding what we value both in terms of actual work – hours versus impact – as well as how we recognise merit – traditional versus talent.

About the author

​At Openside, Debbie delivers programmes which enhance participants behavioural and cognitive skills to improve individual and team effectiveness, personal impact and leadership skills.

Debbie was previously a Partner in Deloitte, South Africa, where she held dual roles. She was an internal HR Director and a client-facing Partner in Human Resources Consulting. Her responsibilities included managing the Partner Assessment and Admission processes as well as the firm’s Talent Management Programme. In her Consulting role, she managed several organisational change and development programmes with a broad range of clients​.​

[1] The Oxford Handbook of Professional Service Firms” (2015) edited by Laura Empson, Daniel Muzio, Joseph Broschak, Bob Hinings, Oxford University Press