November 11, 2013 9:00 pm

Schemes aim to promote more females to partner

The hours are long, the travel gruelling and teams are at clients’ beck and call. These conditions are often blamed for the fact that few women reach senior positions in management consulting.

But while firms are working to change this, the question is whether the industry can shift the balance.

Progress is being made in management consulting firms. “The pipeline of talent coming into those organisations tends to be 50-50 men and women,” says Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer at Catalyst, a non-profit organisation that promotes the advancement of women in business.

However, the proportion of women in the higher echelons is smaller. “What’s interesting about professional consulting firms is the drop-off,” Ms Gillis says.

“Typically, we fail to see women get to the partnership level in those firms.”

This is not for lack of trying. Firms have introduced a variety of innovative strategies to foster women leaders – often as part of more individually tailored approaches to promoting diversity.

Through its Career Watch sponsorship programme, for example, EY, the professional services firm, assigns senior leaders to serve as advocates for high-potential women and minorities. The advocates ensure that participants are given mentoring as well as challenging client assignments. In the UK, for example, EY has 94 women being sponsored by 66 partners.

And Capco, a consultancy serving the financial services industry, is trying to increase the number of women being promoted by providing targeted mentoring programmes to high performing women who have not yet reached partner level in the firm.

Often, casual discussions can be as helpful as structured diversity programmes. Part of Accenture’s Accent on Women network involves helping female executives arrange informal meetings with senior women leaders in the firm, who talk about their experiences and pass on tips for success.

Hilary Thomas, a partner in KPMG’s public sector healthcare team, says firms also need to improve the way data are captured on women in the workforce.

She includes her own firm in this recommendation. While KPMG promoted seven women to positions as directors last year, contributing to the organisation’s pipeline of potential female partners, Prof Thomas says the firm “couldn’t say how many applied, who were part-time and how that compared with previous years”.

Lesley Uren, a talent management expert at PA Consulting, believes firms must look beyond initiatives such as flexible working and mentoring.

“You can spend time on things that scratch the surface,” she says. “But if you have a culture that is fundamentally not strong on core values, that’s unlikely to be somewhere where women will thrive.”

A number of factors lie behind the increased attention that firms are paying to helping women rise through the ranks.

First, they want to practice what they preach.

Alan Leaman, chief executive of the UK’s Management Consultancies Association (MCA), says: “Many are advising clients on issues such as work-life balance and how to get the best out of employees. So they’re also looking at those issues themselves.”

Another driver is growing awareness that having more women in senior positions benefits the bottom line. Research by Catalyst has found that companies with the most women board directors outperform those with the least by 16 per cent on return on sales and by 26 per cent on return on invested capital.

But despite the efforts of firms to create a working environment that fosters women’s promotion, the nature of management consulting throws up barriers to their advancement.

Ms Gillis cites the traditional billing model. “The pressure to deliver in terms of numbers of hours often hits a peak period when many young women are looking to start their families,” she says. “So you see the demands of the job and personal life colliding.”

And while many firms offer part-time positions to women who want to focus on their families, this can make it harder for them to be selected for high-profile client-facing projects.

Prof Thomas says: “I can think of several high-performing women who have left [consulting] out of the sheer frustration of feeling that by working part time they’re missing out, or that they have to compensate in their own time – so it’s not truly part time.”

However, PA’s Ms Uren argues that, unlike many industries, much of consulting work can, in fact, be done remotely.

“It’s far more output driven,” she says. “In consulting, provided that you deliver what you need to deliver for the client, you can work very flexibly,” she says.

Research suggests that firms could do more to provide this flexibility without damaging their client relationships or reducing their ability to generate business.

In an MCA survey of consulting clients* published last year, 82 per cent said that if flexible working were included as part of a management consultancy proposal, it would not put them off hiring a firm.

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* Consultants working flexibly, Management Consultancies Association, 2012

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