Kiran Bassi
Kiran Bassi says managers must be given the tools to understand the experience of women and minorities © Anna Gordon

Kiran Bassi was excited and keen when she joined Aon as a financial consultant in 2016. But within 12 months in the London office, during which she regularly fielded inappropriate questions from senior managers about her sex life and was groped by a colleague at the summer social, she felt “mentally unsafe” and deflated.

Bassi raised her concerns with her manager, a white man, who she says asked if she had been bringing it upon herself, by being quite “boisterous and very talkative”. She says he and the wider management team ended up giving the men who harassed her a “slap on the wrist” and later put her on a “performance review”.

“The whole thing really knocked my self-esteem. I’ve never gotten my confidence back to that level,” she says. “I realised how normal it is for them to put you on performance review when you raise a problem, especially if you’re a woman, and even more so if you’re a woman of colour.” 

Consultancy firms in the UK have in recent years advertised the steps they are taking to address the problems associated with male-dominated workplaces. But women continue to leave the profession before they reach senior levels; only a limited number make it to partner and there are still large pay disparities at the top.

Many companies have a nearly 30 per cent median pay differential between men and women, according to mandatory reporting provided to the UK government. At Aon, for example, the pay difference was 29 per cent last year — the same as two years before — and the difference in median bonus pay was 63 per cent. At PwC LLP, median pay was 32 per cent lower for women and bonuses were 60 per cent lower. However at PwC Services, which employs the large majority of PwC UK's 22,000 staff and all taken on since 2004, the gaps were much narrower, at 7 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

Special report: Consultancy firms struggle with wide gender pay gaps

The difficulty in retaining female talent is in part due to the fact that the industry rewards those who are highly mobile and travel for days or weeks to support clients, which can disadvantage women with family responsibilities.

Senior management also often reward and promote those who show an established masculine type of confidence, both with clients and at interview, according to Anne-Marie Malley, managing partner for consulting at Deloitte.

“Women will regularly tell me all about the development opportunities they need before they can become a partner whereas men won’t do that,” she says. “And at interview we found that male candidates tended to perform better on the day.”

Malley has set up an “ally network” within the consulting arm of Deloitte, to educate senior leadership about the difficulties women can experience in the workplace and also to make them aware of how gender and racial bias is affecting their decision-making. 

Deloitte has close to 50 per cent representation of women at more junior levels of the consulting business, but that split slips to 25 per cent at partner level. Only 12 per cent of Deloitte’s partners are from ethnic minority backgrounds and 0.5 per cent are black. “I think a lot of it is about not having senior role models,” Malley says. “We do recognise we’re working in the right direction but we have more to do.” 

Last week, KPMG UK elevated two female partners to run the firm temporarily after an outcry over comments by Bill Michael, its chairman, that included rubbishing the notion of unconscious bias as “complete crap”. He later resigned.

Bassi, who now works in talent, branding and inclusion at a small software company, says that in consulting “you often don’t have women to aspire to”. The only woman partner in the office when she raised concerns about sexual misconduct did not approach Bassi about what she was going through or offer support.

Aon says: “We spoke with Ms Bassi about the allegations raised . . . and conducted a detailed investigation in line with our policies and processes. As an organisation, we are committed to providing an inclusive culture and environment in which all employees feel safe, respected and valued.”

Bassi eventually left her consultancy role to work in another field © Anna Gordon

The company says it has mandated unconscious bias training for all colleagues and launched a “Speak Up” training module to “remind colleagues of the importance of speaking up and how to do so”. It is also “actively addressing” the pay gap.

Women in the sector highlight other problems as key factors that hold back their progress — including inflexible working policies and an after-hours culture that tends to exclude women with family responsibilities.

Tamzen Isacsson, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, agrees that there is still a long way to go to on diversity and inclusion.

She notes that across the industry, only 21 per cent of partners are women. And, while at entry level 22 per cent of consultants are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, only 8 per cent of partners are. Even then, Isacsson points out that there is an even lower proportion of black people in the sector overall, which broader “Bame” statistics conceal.

The MCA launched a Women in Consulting group in November — a forum in which women can discuss barriers and opportunities, whether all firms should adopt targets and which practices such as job sharing and mentoring work well.

Initiatives such as flexible working plans have not done enough to redress the balance for women and people from ethnic minorities to date.

Much of the problem results from a lack of understanding of what those groups need, says Bassi.

“If managers don’t belong to groups that are marginalised, they should be given tools to understand the lived experiences of those people,” she adds. “Managers simply aren’t taught the complexities of what women and people of colour are going through.”

This article has been amended to reflect the difference in the gender pay gap between PwC LLP and PwC Services.

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