Women in Consulting Moving up the Career Ladder

Women in Consulting: 8 Empowering Tips from Female Consulting Coaches

Is the management consulting industry still a male-dominated field or have women in consulting caught up? For the last years, consulting firms have been working hard on being attractive employers for women, because they themselves benefit from having the greatest possible diversity among their employees. BCG’s research on the benefits of gender diversity found that companies with workforces and leadership teams that are balanced between men and women are more creative, innovative, and resilient; and that the women at these companies have higher levels of engagement and ambition (Source).

But how is the situation really? How do young female candidates feel when they are approaching a career in consulting? If you are interested in getting started in consulting as a woman and still have doubts, we have summarized all the necessary information for you. Together with our female case interview coaches, we want to clear up prejudices, show you what you can expect as a woman in consulting and give you tips on how you will succeed!

Overview

Why Females in Consulting Are Absolutely Essential

Many clients nowadays would like to see more women in their consulting team. Why is that?

  • Studies have shown that teams which have a greater proportion of women deliver better quality solutions, to both the client and the organizations’ end customers
  • Women are perceived to be faster at developing relationships and are more effective coaches
  • Women are seen as more reflective which helps consulting teams to think more laterally and to consider the longer term
  • Many clients think that a project run by a woman is likely to keep to time and budget
  • Female project managers are considered to be better at stakeholder management than their male counterparts
     

“Myths” About Women in Consulting – Are They True?

Consulting is a domain marked with many prejudices, also concerning female consultants and their working conditions. We asked our female coaches what they have to say about the five most common convictions. Are they myths or are they true?

Consulting Is an "Old Boys Club" 

Historically, management consulting was a domain dominated by rich white men – as most businesses were, due to the historical circumstances. Women and other minorities were prevented to succeed and enter this industry. How is it like today?

I disagree that consulting is a men-dominated environment. At McKinsey, we already reached +50% of BA women, and are getting encouraging results in senior roles, as well.

A lot of times I found myself the only female in the room with another 10-15 males during the steering co meeting. It is sad to see that, and I think the clients should do something about it. But at the same time, people focus on the content, the work we produce, not whether it is presented by a male or female.

Consulting has traditionally been and it still is a boys club, particularly at management level. Fortunately, this is starting to change at the basis of the pyramid, with business analyst classes with over 50% women. The challenge is not at recruitment level, since the female talent pool is rich and powerful, but at retention level: a career in consulting is still difficult to combine with creating a family, and women are the ones still mostly affected by this.

The consulting world has changed a lot over the years. Compared to the past, today all the consulting firms are putting lot of effort in recruiting women across all levels. Many office have implemented the 50% policy for entry level recruitment. However, the % of women across all the roles is not yet at 50% because many women leave before reaching senior level roles. Within this context, retention initiatives play a key role.

While indeed it happens to be true depending on a project, position, or a particular firm, the consulting industry has been evolving, and now sometimes it may even be the other way around. My experience in consulting in the Middle East - a region that is very conservative and where one would expect the “Boys Club” to be the case even more - has confirmed otherwise. I was actually able to leverage the fact of being a woman to my own advantage - I was the only one from the team to access the “Female Section” of the client organizations to chat with the counterparts, many of whom were women and even in Saudi Arabia. I believe the more the presence of women increases across all industries and functions of our clients the more there are opportunities for female consultants to build their own “Girls Club”.

If we compare consulting to selective/demanding/prestigious jobs on the market (i.e. PE, Investment banking, startups, GAFA...), in terms of benchmarking, strategy consulting is much better positioned when it comes to inclusion and diversity. Especially when it comes to fresh graduate / junior profiles, Women consultants represent ~50% of the cohort. However, this rate drops substantially when we hit the manager level and even worse at the partner level, that's just a fact. Consulting firms work a lot in order to improve this (there are for example dedicated diversity and inclusion teams, facilitating taking a break when you want to raise a family etc. with no loss of seniority) but this change management needs to come from outside as well - it is a social issue and not specific to consulting. I am quite optimistic that change is coming.

 

As a Woman in Consulting, You Can't Have a Family AND a Successful Career

One of the most common concerns amongst women when considering a future in management consulting is their belief that they will have to choose family or a successful career, and that they cannot have both. Oftentimes, young women are not willing to give up one or the other and hesitate to make a career move into consulting.

Working from 9am to 9pm is considered already a “very good lifestyle”, which can be tricky for mothers. However, I have seen many cases in which the moms leave earlier (18h), spend some time with their kids, put them to bed, and then continue remotely from home.

BCG does offer flexible work arrangements for mothers to choose from, e.g. 70% time. Some of my ex-colleagues also chose to switch roles temporarily to a supporting function when they first have their babies, but then switch back to the consulting path again when the work at home is not as demanding.

Undoubtedly consulting, as well as for other jobs with responsibility, require dedication and hard work. This can be quite easy when you are 25, but it might become more difficult as you approach 30s and you want to be a mother and a successful businesswoman. 

Personally, I believe consulting firms have done a lot in this sense, implementing several initiatives aimed at facilitating the consulting career for a woman (e.g., part time / flexible hours). But most of all, I believe it DEPENDS ON YOU. From what I have seen, 3 things help you make it happen: 1) choose carefully the people you want to work with, 2) establish you credibility and prove your trustworthiness, 3) push back when you disagree, but be also proactive if you have ideas that could improve your working life as well as the one of there women around you.

Before blaming others, it is important to think 'have I done all I could to reach my goals?'

If you tell this to yourself, then indeed, you most likely can’t. Often we face difficulties to push back and assume that we are never enough and should do more to prove our value. While consulting is indeed a demanding job, it is only part of life, and a lot in our life depends on how clear we are about what’s important. What’s important is not necessarily EITHER OR, but it can and should be BOTH. Now, to make it possible you would definitely need better self-organization to ensure the time spent for the career is 100% efficient. You will need good communication skills to be able to agree on priorities with BOTH sides - your colleagues and your family. You will certainly need support, be it your husband or a project partner. And remember - if you are not getting the latter, it doesn’t mean that consulting is not for you, but the firm.

 

A Woman Cannot Make It to Partner Level

Graph share of women in consulting at the big four

A similar number of male and female graduates are typically accepted for entry-level positions. However, the higher the level, the lower the percentage of female consultants gets. Why is that?

This is a vicious cycle in my opinion – the already existing lack of women in senior positions leads to a lack of female role models and mentors for more junior consultants, which again leads to higher drop out numbers of more junior women. As a young female consultant I only very rarely meet women that I can look up to from a professional point of view (not to mention the even lower number of moms in senior positions), so there is nobody I can actually identify with and who acts as a role model for me. Although there are men, who try to promote and support female consultants on their way up the ladder, this mentoring relationship will never be as natural as a mentoring relationship between two women (who share the same views on career matters and face the same obstacles). This is why I think that mentoring programs (also especially outside the workplace are of such importance).

Despite increased openness to dual income households and households where the female partner is the primary breadwinner, women still handle the majority of household and childcare duties. A career that requires significant travel and long hours is not compatible with the needs and wants of many women as they get older. The large consulting firms have worked to develop flexible and lower travel models but haven't successfully implemented them. I believe because the Monday-Thursday travel model is still deeply engrained in their culture. Until that model is broken for everyone, women won't be able to work in a different way and will ultimately feel that they have to choose between household responsibilities and working in client service.

Again, I would argue that this is a general society issue and not a consulting issue. Yes, facts show that the rate of partners is very low. To be fair, I strongly think women can make it to the top but there are 3 main factors I have seen in women senior managers that decided to leave before reaching the partner level:
1. Some left because they want a better work-life balance and were exhausted at this stage. This is a company problem that should be addressed. Some firms started proposing Leave Of Absence initiatives for men/women who want to leave just before reaching the partner level, with  no impact on their progression
2. Bro culture: in some companies, in order to get promoted, you need to have a certain level of votes. As the majority of partners are men, there is a tendency to have a closer relationship with other men colleagues. This is a society-wide cultural issue
3. Women partners considered as a "quota": this is very offensive but some companies have a quota of % of elected women at each level. This is usually really offensive for women and they decide to leave before.

This is a huge "issue" we face across industries but I can see change is happening. More and more in the pitch presentations that we have with the client, our clients want to see more women sit at the table. Clients want diverse teams and so do we.

 

There Is a Huge Gender Pay Gap in Consulting

The consulting industry’s prejudice of being male dominated usually comes with the belief that there is a huge gender pay gap. Overall, most consulting firms indeed show a gender-pay gap. However, this pay gap is not based on an unequal pay but on the lack of women in senior roles. A female and male consultant in the same position will receive the same pay.

 

Consulting Nowadays Favors Women

When discussing gender equality measures, sooner or later the question arises whether these measures are finally favoring women and putting men into an unequal position. For example, all larger firms have internal networks specific for women, geared towards supporting their female consultants. Some have specific female quota goals which can in a specific case favor a woman to get a position.

Yes, males complain and somewhat I agree with them. Forcing 50% male and female recruiting for example, forced many smart male candidates not to be hired just because not so many female students are interested in consulting. I would put more effort in female retention rather that female recruiting.

Not at all. If you are trying to break down decades of unfair practices, you have to provide extra support to those who have been marginalized. Pulling someone up who has been pushed down is not favoring them, it's an attempt to restore fairness. This harkens back to the essential difference between equity and equality – equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. Decades of systemic prejudice against women in the business world has ensured that they are not starting from the same place as men. Therefore, they need extra support to achieve equity.

Yes, [I hear men complain] frequently: This goes from „Luckily I got in a while ago, as my firm now only hires women“ to „Person X (female) is so stupid, she has obviously only been hired/ promoted because she is a woman“. Funnily enough, most of the complaints have been stated by men who are in very good positions right now or who have climbed the ladder much faster than the average, so they actually would have nothing to worry about. To be frank, I know only very few male consultants who have ever praised performance of female colleagues.

 

Female Consultants Are Afraid of Male-Dominated Client Environments

Consulting firms serve large multinational companies which, in many countries, have been historically dominated by men (especially at the top management level). This could have a two-fold effect: i) discourage women from applying to consulting, and ii) create insecurity among female consultants.

The situation has largely changed over the years and large corporate clients have changed their approach, implemented several internal diversity initiatives, and started to promote women even at top management level. In addition to that, even if many clients are still male-dominated, I have never felt a different treatment. On the contrary, I saw clients perceiving the presence of a woman in the meeting as a positive thing. So, I would conclude that nowadays your credibility mainly depends on your skills rather than your gender.

I think it really depends on a person you are rather than consulting per se. I naturally find it easier to communicate with males and whenever I had to spend months on projects where I was the only woman it has never occurred to me that something is wrong or strange or scary. If you are, however, a person for whom it is much easier to talk to women - the chances are that someone from your client counterparts will be a woman. At the end of the day, I would not focus too much on whether it is a man or a woman you are talking to, but your client who has specific needs and your job is to understand and address these

I think this is a much wider question than consulting. I would argue that it really depends on your personality and the company culture. 
1. Personality: personally, most of my mentors were and still are men who supported me to reach my goals and paved the way for my success. It did not matter whether they were men or women. What mattered is that I created a trust relationship with them.
2. Company culture: bro culture can be very destructive for young women. Yes, it builds thick skin but you would rather work for an open-minded company. I think this is wider than consulting (look at large corporates where C-suites are most frequently only men). If we have more women clients on the top (and we see that change happening), we will for sure get more women at the top in demanding jobs and fewer bullies across the board. 

 

How Can Consulting Firms Remove Barriers for Women?

In order to remove barriers for women in consulting, it is first important to be aware of the five key gender diversity metrics. By keeping these factors in mind, each consulting firm can identify weaknesses and areas to improve.

Overview Five key gender diversity metrics

To improve these metrics, there are specific measures that are already being implemented by many consultancies that target the main issues discussed in this article:

  • Coaching and mentoring programs to help women advance within the firms and to identify concerns and issues they may have before they resign
  • Networks for women and women-only recruitment events
  • Company culture programs to nurture more open and empowering work cultures and to educate project managers to accommodate and juggle needs within their team
  • Flexible working hours, part-time and remote work
  • Maternity/paternity leave and after-leave support
  • Childcare support and over-time childcare reimbursement
  • Support for nursing moms in the office with special amenities and rooms

Examples of Consulting Firms Stressing Gender Diversity

Many large consultancies have already done quite a progress within the last few years. You can read more on their websites:

8 Tips from Our Female Consulting Coaches

Together with our female consulting coaches, we have developed a list of tips that will help you along your career into consulting. These pieces of advice are not exclusively applicable for women, but they will get you some guidance.

1. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND BE FEARLESS.

An alarming number of women in consulting internally see themselves as inferior. If you got invited to the interview or you have gotten the job, you have achieved something! You have earned your right to speak up and to believe that you are equal, if not even superior in some respects, to men. You need to believe that with all your being and don’t allow anyone to treat you as if you are less significant!

2. KNOW THE WORK BETTER THAN ANYONE.

If you want to climb the ladder of success, you will need to build up a good reputation. For this, you must work very hard, especially during your first year in management consulting. Be extremely reliable, always be over-prepared for meetings and over-deliver on deliverables. Do exceptional work for a few senior people within the firm to prove that you are exceptional!

3. TOUGHEN UP

Women in consulting or in business in general need to be tough and able to deal with people being rude or inappropriate. Focus on your job first and later, when you become senior manager or partner, you will be able to limit the number of biased people.

4. SUPPORT OTHER WOMEN IN CONSULTING

Women often tend to behave competitively among each other. Instead, you can decide to lift each other up and support one another along the way. This can only benefit you and your career!

5. BUILD AND INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS

Try to connect with the client, engagement manager and partner, also on a personal level. Look at the project from their point of view and try to do things that are important from their perspective. Make a huge effort to become a go-to person for a project.

6. USE YOUR ADVANTAGES

Take advantage of the opportunities that consulting does offer. Use the movement to promote diversity and the opportunities it offers you to progress further in your career. Attend women in consulting events and approach senior male leaders that are open to support young women in consulting.

7. ALWAYS CONTINUE TO IMPROVE YOURSELF

As a consultant, you should have both great hard and soft skills in order to be successful. At the end of the day, you are dealing with clients and teams all the time. Continuously make efforts to identify what skills you should improve on – whether it is a specific knowledge or expertise you want to develop or social skills you want to work on.

8. DRESS FOR SUCCESS

A lot of female candidates have doubts on an appropriate dress code for their job and job interview. Here are some things you should pay attention to when picking your outfit (of course, always keep in mind how you feel comfortable, as well!):

  • Outfit: For your job interview, it is better to play it safe and go for the business look. This means blazer plus business dress or skirt/pants and blouse.
  • Dress length: If you decide to wear a dress or skirt, make sure it is not too short as this will appear girlish and unprofessional. Check the skirt length while sitting, because the skirt usually slides upwards and will look much shorter.
  • Colors: You don’t need to wear the classic business colors grey, blue, black or brown tone-in-tone. Feel free to add some color, but don’t overdo it.
  • Shoes: Choose an elegant pair of shoes, but make sure that you can walk comfortably in them. An elegant pump with a heel height of up to 2.5 inches can look professional, but also flat shoes.

Any Questions Left? Get Help from Our Top 5 Female Case Interview Coaches!

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