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women partnersMost consultancies are excellent at advising their clients about the benefits of gender diversity, but are they really practicing what they preach when it comes to their own internal policies?

Every so often, comes an announcement by a consultancy that they are taking gender diversity seriously. McKinsey began 2017 by pledging support to the ‘Paradigm for Parity’ – a group of 27 influential US CEOs all wanting gender parity in their organisations by 2030. But, in the main, most would agree that the issue of gender parity within consultancies themselves is something of a thorny one.

With some notable exceptions (like Bain’s Orit Gadesh – the female chairman), most have never had a female CEO themselves, while many have also been called up for their lack of proper talent pipelining (at mid-executive level) and the fact they still run very male-dominated (including long-hours-based) cultures.

So is this still the case now, and is there really much change afoot? Well, today you certainly won’t find a consultancy without its own women’s network of some description – often with direct reporting to the very top. Bain has its Global Women’s Leadership Council (GWLC) – a sort of ‘governing body’, where the chief talent officer, regional MDs, and office heads from each region all sit on it.

It’s primary role is to ensure the firm develops and embeds efforts to stay on the forefront of gender diversity. In each office there is even a WAB (Women at Bain) partner and manager responsible for implementing global initiatives at the local level.

Boston Consulting Group has a similar female focus – it runs its Women@BCG networking group – and it has had considerable success looking at the way it designs roles. Much of its recent work in the US has focused on understanding why job satisfaction amongst women was 10 percentage points lower that it was for men.

Feedback found women were impacted more by their relationships with mentors, and the communication style used internally, so both these issues have been tackled, as has reducing travel burdens and allowing more part-time work, and confronting the perceived ‘male’ culture. Since these finding were found, remedial efforts were started, with managers given strengths-based feedback training, while more women were assigned mentors.

Of course, just introducing some new policies is no guarantee of success when it comes to changing stubborn gender differences. Back in 2011, an Harvard Business Review article suggested mentoring women as a solution to gender diversity simply doesn’t work – because they didn’t get promoted still, but were just made even busier. However, the proof of BCG’s efforts has very much been in the pudding.

In the last five years, BCG has seen a 70% increase in the number of women in its US consulting ranks. Women make up 45% of BCG's US employees, 44% of its managers and a quarter of its executives. Other successes include McKinsey’s ‘Mini MBA’ scheme for members of its McKinseyWomen network, while it also recently introduced its Pace programme, which specifically allows female consultants to deliberately extend their time on the partner track.

So, have things really turned a corner? Progress may have been made, but this is not to say problems do not exist still. Typically, women account for 40-50% of new joiners to consultancies, but they continue to ‘disappear’ the higher the ranks one goes. One study of 81 consultancies found females account for just 17% of total partners . Statistics like this do seem to be borne out in partner promotion data.

In December 2016, for example, Roland Berger appointed 15 new partners globally, and four new senior partners, but not a single one of them was female. This is despite the fact it says ‘we value diversity as a strength within our own company’ in its ‘values’ statement, and puts development of all talent as one of its top 10 commitments.

Of course a problem consultancies, as much as any other type of business, faces is the fact they can have as many women’s support, training, and networking groups as they like, but many HRDs report seeing the same (if somewhat stark observation) - that often women’s priorities do change over time, especially after having children. Sometimes, no manner of initiatives can break new-found maternal nature, and women can often not want to return full-time.

For those that do want to return, the task for consultancies is to accommodate this, and without prejudice, and certainly, effort is being made. LEK Consulting, for example, offers reduced work schedules, flexible hours, and telecommuting (for both males and females). It also includes offering staff extended time off, in the form of sabbaticals, where staff still maintain full employment status. Specific ‘family time leave’ is also available.

At its root though, for consultancies to really change, there needs to be a much deeper cultural change too - something that take much longer to address. There still exists issues around unconscious bias and corporate culture. For instance, research by McKinsey itself in partnership with the UK’s 30% Club (a group that campaigns for 30% female representation on boards), looked at professional services firms – including seven accounting/consultancy firms.

It found only 55% of respondents actually thought diverse partnerships improved performance. It also found that while partnership businesses overall say they’re committed to diversity, only 47% of women surveyed said their managers were visibly committed to gender diversity.

So, more does clearly need to be done. Consultancy firms remain overwhelmingly male-dominated, and they need to work harder to truly achieve equal representation between men and women all the way up the business. Issues remain about working hours and work life balance, as consultancy life is, after all, tough one, always driven by client needs, and often across different time zones.

The good news however, is that evidence suggests consultancies’ clients want to see more female consultants and partners, because increasingly it is they (the client) who are becoming more diverse too. And if that’s not an incentive for consultancies to improve, nothing is.

Peter Crush for

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