If successful women don’t talk about their careers, who will act as role models?

Gender parity in business still has a lot of ground to cover, yet there has arguably never been a more supportive time for women aiming to reach the top in business. But at what cost? What personal sacrifices must successful women make? What choices do they have? And what can employers do to support them in their career planning? A new survey suggests that these questions prevail, particularly for female management consultants. How can women and businesses navigate these challenges together?

Womens Day

The business case for parity is clear: according to the Petersen Institute for International Economics companies with more female leaders are more profitable1.   But parity is not the norm. “The consulting industry may be successful in recruiting gender-balanced graduate intakes,” says Adrian Edwards, EY – EMEIA Deputy Advisory Leader, “but females often end up leaving at Manager or Senior manager grades. At EY, we take this issue very seriously. As consultants, we want to provide our clients with the brightest and best minds to meet their needs, and that means bringing diverse perspectives to the table.”

To better understand and address the difficulties that women face in advancing their consulting careers, EY sponsored a new survey, Women In Consulting: How To Hold Onto Talent In The ‘Pinched Middle’, from Source Global Research and Unida Diversity Consulting. Survey respondents, termed “the pinched middle,” are men and women in the Manager and Senior Manager ranks who, just as they’re expected to be at full throttle in their careers, are also becoming busier in their personal lives. And it’s the point at which many, women in particular, reflect on the kind of life they want, the trade-offs they’re willing to make, and what it takes to be successful in consulting.

The Women in Consulting survey reveals that some of female consulting professionals' main challenges are:

  • A lack of strong female role models
  • A general mindset that there is only one path to partnership: the one that male partners took themselves
  • Reservations about discussing the challenges they face, in fear that doing so might damage their professional reputations
  • Prevailing unconscious bias around gender norms and expectations 

What can women do to instigate change?

Olga Bulatova, EY – EMEIA Advisory Talent Leader and founder of EY Academy of Business in Moscow, has supported many women in their career development. Olga challenged traditional boundaries in her own career by being the first female Partner (Ernst & Young Valuation and Advisory Services LLC) in EY Russia ever to take maternity leave, and she relates an example of a self-initiated conversation that altered and progressed perspectives: “I said to my team that I can’t have after-hours meetings on Mondays because I need to be with my kids to help them with homework and take them to sports. And my male Partner colleagues realized that they should be setting similar boundaries.” Olga also limits her attendance at evening social functions to no more than two per week. “Ultimately, this approach has helped me to better prioritize and delegate” says Olga.

According to 93% of female survey respondents, having and promoting role models that women can relate to is the single most helpful thing that organizations could do to retain more of them. Learning about the success of others that have gone before them and observing that there are diverse ways to build careers and to succeed can be tremendously confidence-building for would-be female Partners.

Eugenia Rodriguez-Vidal, EY - EMEIA Advisory Talent Leader, notes that achieving such openness on the part of potential female role models can be a challenge in and of itself. “Women work hard and we expect everyone around us to notice and that rewards will come,” Eugenia says. “We’re not very vocal about our achievements. In fact, female consultants, even successful Partners, can be reluctant to promote their accomplishments as there’s a fear of being seen to be bragging.” 

Where can women find a space for open conversations?

Women need to take the opportunity to raise awareness proactively about the challenges they face, as well as sharing their successes, and this will mean initiating open conversations with colleagues and senior leaders. This can be facilitated by initiatives at work such as “reverse mentoring,” whereby female consultants upwardly coach senior colleagues so that they better understand women’s unique experiences, both at work and in their wider lives. This equips leaders with alternative perspectives on how to get the best out of others, manage diversity and be more inclusive.

Adrian Edwards, who initiated the Women in Consulting survey, was mentored by Sayeh Ghanbari, a recently promoted Partner (Ernst & Young LLP), for an hour every week. “This was one of the most powerful learning experiences of my career,” says Adrian, “to understand, from my mentor’s perspective, the impact of accepted norms.”

Open dialogue necessitates trust and a safe, supportive environment. Women should take advantage of informal gatherings with colleagues, away from client work, where two-way dialogue with leadership around everyday challenges and opportunities to improve the working environment and experience is encouraged. In such settings, by talking openly about their life stage, their home setup and any family or personal obligations, women can deepen leaders and others’ understanding of their circumstances.

How does organizational culture need to change?

In terms of facilitating openness, many organizations have run initiatives targeted specifically at women, such as career development programs and networks. The relationships forged through such platforms can play a vital role in influencing women’s willingness to talk openly about their career concerns without fear of being judged or misunderstood. A community of female peers in similar situations allows for trusted exchanges around common challenges, as well as providing women with opportunities to develop supportive relationships, such as coaching or mentoring, that can aid career advancement.

This overarching need for more authentic conversations around women’s circumstances suggests that one of the biggest hurdles to be overcome is entrenched attitudes. “I see women who are true heroes at work, juggling everything successfully on top of their duties at home. As a result, leaders see everything turning out well and they falsely think that nothing needs to change,” says Olga. ”Women need to call for help when they need it. In fact, everyone should. This would drive tangible change.”

What more can organizations do?

The mechanics of career advancement is an area that requires a major overhaul, according to the Women In Consulting survey. A high number of both female and male respondents believe that the processes and measures around promotions need to be more transparent.  The report also suggests an opportunity for organizations to be more flexible around the criteria used to evaluate performance. This might mean reviewing methods of assessment for consultants to align them more closely to individuals’ circumstances and ambitions: for example, by shifting the focus on absolute revenue numbers toward client relationships and longer-term growth. Consulting career models are also changing and where, historically, practitioners either wanted to become a Partner or not, it is now recognized that different people have different aspirations and different measures of success, and may well take a different path to get there.

In conclusion, change is needed – but it’s up to companies and individuals to help make it happen. “We all expect change and all sorts of opportunities but, ultimately, that responsibility is on us,” says Olga. “People need to be the ambassadors of change and to lead it. We are ready for that.”

Download EY’s point of view as a pdf here.

1. Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Survey from The Peterson Institute for International Economics

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