Helping women rise from the 'pinched middle' to the top

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In consulting top jobs are still held by men. How can organisations hold onto their best women?

Despite the huge efforts of the £100 billion-plus global consulting industry to tackle its lack of diversity at the top, leadership roles at most firms are still dominated by men.

Many businesses have introduced family-friendly policies to mitigate what is an inherently difficult working environment: long hours, demanding projects and extensive travel are all the norm. The number of female partners is growing as a result, but the rate of change is still slow. Although men and women join the industry as graduates in almost equal numbers, many women leave in their mid-30s, unable or unwilling to juggle the twin pressures of a stressful job with young children.

"Ultimately the lifestyle will be the reason I leave; I couldn't have a family and remain in consulting. I just don't see how I can do what I do with a family,” was the comment of one very typical female senior manager we spoke to. She was one of almost 300 senior managers questioned for a new Source Global Research and Unida report, sponsored by EY, on what we are calling the ‘pinched middle’ – where senior managers in professional firms are expected to be at full-throttle in career terms just when they’re becoming busier at home.

So why, even with firms’ best intentions, are women still not making it to the top? Half of the women surveyed say they don’t feel in control of how their lives are organised. For many the expectation that they will drop everything to meet a client’s demand is at the heart of the problem. “Literally whatever the client says you have to go out of your way to do it,” says another senior manager. “The expectation is that if you're asked to do something you get it over the line –with the late nights, the travel, or whatever is required.” And this senior manager is not alone with her views as almost half of the women surveyed say that their unpredictable workload is a “serious issue” for them.

Another problem is a lack of empathy from the partners they work for. Almost two-thirds of women say that people who aren’t in their position have no idea how difficult it is; a third say that the person they directly work for ignores the firm’s policies that are designed to help them. Sadly, most firms’ culture still lacks respect for part-time work and distrusts flexible working. Add all these up and it’s easy to see why so many women throw in the towel just as their consulting careers are about to take off.

What can firms do to hang on to their female senior managers? Continuity of teams would really help, both because colleagues understand a woman’s personal circumstances better and also because it builds trust in flexible or part-time arrangements. That trust is vital –it builds confidence that work will still be delivered, even if it’s at slightly different times, or despite not being present in the office.

Businesses also need to rethink their attitude to part-time roles and be clear about how it contributes towards promotion. At the moment the tendency is to pigeonhole women working part time into back office, non-client-facing roles that don’t contribute to their longer-term aims. As a result it’s seen as time spent treading water.

Finally, firms need to be far more sophisticated in how they assess individuals. Rather than focusing on the revenues generated over a single year they should view careers as a long-term plan. As one woman we spoke to summarised: “Firms always talk about career plans, but they fail to appreciate that a lot of women's career plans are built around family and children –and that it's no less a plan because of it."

Alison Huntington is senior analyst at Source Global Research

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