I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked around a conference room and found that I’m the only female sitting at the table. The harsh reality is that women in consulting are highly underrepresented, as is the case in the upper echelons of the corporate ladder in general. However, being a minority actually can work in your favor by providing you unique opportunities to grow as a leader.
Let me share a few specific challenges and benefits to being a woman in consulting.
Finding female mentors and role models
I was lucky because my two most trusted advisers in consulting were strong, high-ranking women. However, many of my female peers were not so lucky.
Firms today struggle with retaining women at the manager and senior manager levels. Consulting is demanding, and I anticipate that until the business world adapts to the needs of individuals who require work-life flexibility, we will continue to see high turnover rates of female managers. With fewer women in leadership positions, junior practitioners may struggle to find female role models to guide them in their consulting journey.
With the lack of women in high-ranking leadership positions, it can be difficult to picture your future in ten, fifteen, or twenty years. I often found questions surface in my head like: Can I really maintain this level of productivity in the long-term? How can I raise a family when I’m traveling every week and working crazy hours? How can I serve my clients and also serve myself, my family, and my local community?
The answers to those questions are not clear because there are few examples from which to draw. However, the women I know who have made it to the top are extremely satisfied – they love their job, and they somehow make it work with their family and personal lives.
Finding the courage to speak-up
Women are inherently less likely to share ideas, especially counterarguments, during business meetings. This phenomenon is magnified when women are outnumbered by men, as is typical in consulting. For me, it took countless hours of coaching and personal pep-talking to find the confidence I needed to assert myself during meetings.
Perhaps it was my fear of being viewed as “bossy” or “too aggressive” that held me back (a concept famously discussed in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in). Perhaps it was a fear that my male colleagues would discount my ideas because I was different from them. Either way, it took courage to speak-up as a female, but doing so was paramount to my success – and more importantly, to my clients’ success.
Having a unique point of view
Being a woman in consulting means that you can bring a perspective that your male counterparts simply cannot provide. The problem with women being a minority in the business world is that women are not a minority in the consumer world. The general population, and therefore, the market, is fifty percent women; thus, solving client challenges requires the perspective of a woman.
I’ve found that being a woman and having that unique point of view allows me to connect with clients on a deeper level. I’m valued for my ideas and contributions.
Additionally, women tend to make decisions and approach problems differently than men. I’m not saying that one way of thinking or decision-making is better than the other, but I am suggesting that the combination of both methods leads to better outcomes. When a woman is involved in the decision-making process, better decisions get made.
Being asked to lead
Sometimes, being the minority works in your favor. It sets you apart from your peers and can lead to more opportunities. As a female, you may be asked or selected to take on leadership positions more frequently than your male counterparts simply because firms crave diversity of thought in such positions.
For example, one of my trusted female mentors was a top manager at the firm – Consulting Magazine even recognized her with a prestigious “Woman in Leadership” award in 2013. Without discrediting her talent in any way, I did notice something interesting: Compared to her equally talented male counterparts, she was asked to take on leadership positions, go on sales pitches, and take on new interesting roles more frequently.
It’s an exciting time to be a woman in the business world, especially as a consultant. If you can overcome the challenges of finding role models and harnessing your inner confidence, I anticipate you will find ample opportunities to step up as a leader and make an impact on your clients.
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